Nate Hagens’ recent interview of Professor Peter Ward, entitled “Oceans – What’s the Worst that Can Happen?”, serves as a good overview of mankind’s destruction of the marine biosphere and our road to extinction. The title is a rather rhetorical question because very bad things have happened, are already happening, and even worse things are unavoidable and on the horizon despite hopes that humans will run out of ways to extract the dirtiest and most inaccessible fossil fuel deposits. We have seen how inextricably linked economic growth is to rising fossil fuel consumption, no matter the mounting disasters happening before our eyes and the steady stream of dire warnings issued from the scientific community. The most current of such warnings came from the UN last month, and it states that escalating synergies between disasters, economic vulnerabilities and ecosystem failures are increasing the risk of a “global collapse” scenario. Such a catastrophic scenario appears all but inevitable. Constricting fossil fuel consumption is like squeezing a balloon. If one country stops consumption, another takes up the slack. For example, efforts to cripple Russia’s fossil fuel exports for their unwarranted invasion of Ukraine don’t appear to be very effective since China and India have simply stepped in and increased their purchases. Rising oil prices have also more than offset a decline in Russia’s export volumes. Perhaps an unintended consequence of those higher energy prices will be the ripple effect through the economy, making food unaffordable for large swaths of the globe and destabilizing governments.
Getting back to the Peter Ward interview, the professor states matter of factly, “Every time we get into a car, it’s putting more of those CO2 particles into the atmosphere. And if this isn’t collective suicide by Homo sapiens, I don’t know what is.” Unfortunately for us, humans have created an unsustainable civilization supporting billions of people while at the same time destroying the very foundation upon which that system is dependent. Humans are by far outperforming the carbon-spewing volcanoes of past mass extinctions. Nicholas Money, renowned mycologist and author of many books, recently wrote:
Decades ago, Gerald Durrell, the famous conservationist, recognized that “the human race is in the position of a man sawing off the tree branch he is sitting on.” Thirty years after Durrell’s death, the human population has increased by 2 billion and the damage has intensified. The branch will snap now whether we keep sawing or not.
The timeline for extinctions is not known, but, sooner or later, the disappearing mammals will be joined by the other groups of animals. Almost everything will be leaving the metaphorical ark, creeping down the gangplank into oblivion. Millions of other species, seen and unseen, including plants, seaweeds, and fungi will be leaving, too. The tiniest of organisms will inherit the planet, but great gulps of the microbial world will also disappear in the depths of this planetary holocaust…
Exact dates are not known, but mankind’s final fate can be seen scrawled upon the familiar checklist for mass extinctions which we are quickly ticking off, one by one. As Ward points out, every time there has been a major disruption in Earth’s delicate biogeochemical carbon cycle, there has been a mass extinction. Today that disruption is happening on a timescale much faster than at any time in the past, even faster than the asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs. During the K-T extinction, the immediate impact of the asteroid killed only the large animals. It took thousands of years for the consequent climate change to kill off smaller organisms. Current trends are exponentially faster, not only with anthropogenic climate disruption incinerating the biosphere within a lifetime but also by a multi-pronged attack from other human activities such as chemical and plastic pollution, the global spread of invasive species, and humanity’s massive overdraw on the planet’s resources.
As pressures on Earth’s land grow and terrestrial resources look increasingly exhausted, governments and corporations are seeing the next big wins on, in and under the high seas. Whether it is mineral exploration, shipping, energy, tourism, desalination, cable laying, bioprospecting or more, ocean-based industries are picking up speed fast.
This “blue acceleration” has many people worried…With the power to profit from remote ocean resources growing rapidly, and the laws that govern their exploitation less than clear, we risk a free-for-all in the deep. “Our society has been based on the degradation of nature, destruction of nature,” says marine ecologist Enric Sala…
The new plunge into the ocean has come about in part because technologies – from ocean drilling and offshore wind turbines to desalination plants and factory trawlers – have made it possible. “A lot of offshore industries were unthinkable even just a few decades ago,” says Jouffray.
And so it goes, Homo sapiens onward march of eating the seed corn and leaving a husk of a planet for future generations …if there are to be any.
Back to Peter Ward and that checklist for mass extinction…The second step after a large release of heat trapping gasses is that Earth’s poles will start warming up much faster than the rest of the globe, melting the polar icecaps and reducing the heat differential between the equator and higher latitudes. A recent study found that the Arctic is heating up as much as seven times faster than the global average. The Antarctic is warming four times faster than the global average. This diminishing heat differential between the higher latitudes and the equator leads to the third step which is that ocean currents and atmospheric jet streams slow down and become stagnant and swampish. As professor Ward points out, swamps have a lot of nasty, toxic aspects to them such as hydrogen sulfide. This has happened to the oceans many times in Earth’s history with deadly consequences, the most recent being the PETM extinction which was associated with the largest deep-sea mass extinction event in the last 93 million years. Less than 5% of sea creatures survived. The oceans became a poisonous and miasmic brew of acidification, hypoxia and sulfide gases. Deep ocean upwellings injected hydrogen sulfide into the atmosphere, laying waste to plants and animals. This killer gas rose to the upper atmosphere and also attacked the ozone layer, allowing deadly ultraviolet radiation from the sun to amplify the destruction of plant and animal life. Fossil spores contained in strata from the PETM extinction show deformities consistent with damage from UV radiation. Major disruptions in the hydrologic cycle occurred with evidence of increased continental runoff. Land suffered extreme precipitation events. Dinoflagellates, tiny organisms that ooze toxins and create deadly algal blooms called ‘red tides’, flourished in the nearly 100°F surface water of the equator. Less than a third of the large animal species made it. Nearly all trees died. No ice existed on the planet during that time. Sea levels were around 300 feet higher than now.
“There is a pressing need to document and predict hypoxic episodes and hotspots of low oxygen in order to take protective actions for aquaculture, put in place precautionary measures for affected fisheries, and monitor the wellbeing of important fish stocks,” Limburg said.
“Without this understanding, we are in the dark about impacts that have large economic-ecological implications.”…
“These problems are getting worse because we are not solving the problems of nutrient run-off and our waters are continuing to warm.
Despite the horrors described thus far, what really scares Professor Ward is sea level rise. Ward believes that the volcano of mankind will sputter out before we reach the levels required for a full-fledged Canfield Ocean, and negative feedback loops in the climate system will pull Earth back from the brink. The “Canfield Ocean”, a sulfidic and partially oxic ocean, existed for more than 40% of Earth history, between the Archean and Ediacaran periods. It would take millennia to reach that state again, but humans are supercharging the process to get there by releasing into the ocean vast quantities of nutrients from agricultural fertilizer, soil erosion, industrial waste and sewage, in addition to the ever-growing release of CO2 and methane emissions. Humans have become a geologic force breaching most if not all of the planetary boundaries that make Earth hospitable for life. The mechanisms required for Earth to return to a dead, toxic planet may have already been irreversibly set into motion.
Getting back to Ward’s fear, the most recent report on sea level rise states that it is accelerating with an increase of one foot expected along U.S. coasts by 2050. And that is only if emissions are curbed now. Otherwise, expect up to 5 feet. The researchers say that one foot of SLR over the next three decades is equal to the total that occurred over the past century. Just one foot of vertical rise in sea level will swallow up 100 feet of shoreline if the slope is just 1% or more, a typical slope for most coastlines. To make matters worse, most coastal cities are sinking at a rate faster than the seas are rising. Thus within the next few decades, we could see several hundred feet of shoreline swallowed up along coasts of America and around the world, creating the largest human migration in history. Ward believes we’ll have six feet of sea level rise by 2080 which will destroy a big percentage of the world’s rice production, primarily through salinization. Rice is the number one food source for a majority of the world population today. Sea level rise alone could devastate global trade, not to mention the inevitable damage to ports from stronger storms. The latest IPCC report made it clear that parts of the planet are fast becoming uninhabitable:
Life in some locations on the planet is rapidly reaching the point where it will be too hot for the species that live there to survive, international climate experts said in a report Monday.
“With climate change, some parts of the planet will become uninhabitable,” said German scientist Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of Working Group II for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which produced the report released in Berlin…
…Increased heat waves, droughts and floods are already exceeding plants’ and animals’ tolerance thresholds, driving mass mortalities in species such as trees and corals, according to the report…
…Sherilee Harper, a lead author on the North American chapter and an associate professor at the University of Alberta’s public health school, said she was personally struck by the effect climate change already is having on the “physical and mental health of many Americans.”
Peter Ward then brings up something I don’t remember hearing about global warming. The higher temperatures are disrupting the sperm fertility of organisms. Ward says it’s an existential threat to the amount of food we can produce. Recent studies show this to be true and the damage continues across generations:
…according to new research. New findings reveal that heatwaves damage sperm in insects – with negative impacts for fertility across generations. The research team say that male infertility during heatwaves could help to explain why climate change is having such an impact on species populations, including climate-related extinctions in recent years.
Nate and Peter then get into the societal ignorance preventing humans from addressing any serious problem, let alone the existential threat of anthropogenic climate disruption. Peter says, “How could we, as a species, take something as simple as masks and turn it into a political ploy where the level of ignorance will kill you, will kill you?!?” Nate then explains how social media algorithms are set up to highlight the most polarizing content in order to generate more user activity since their business model is based on user engagement. In order to keep users online, the social media platforms are also designed to be very addictive such as with the infinite scroll feature and the “like” button.
In 2017, Facebook’s former president, Sean Parker, said publicly that the company sought to consume users’ time as much as possible, and that the act was “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology”…”That means that we needed to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever… It’s a social validation feedback loop… You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology…” – link
There is no fixing this dysfunctional social media ecosystem because it is operating exactly as intended. Our profit-driven economic system is rooted in inequality, exploitation, dispossession, and environmental destruction. And encouraging the public to turn off the horror show of climate chaos and biodiversity annihilation are essential for this system to continue. Exploiting tribal biases is a good way to keep the plebs fighting amongst themselves as the last dollar is extracted from a dying planet. Nate asks, “If we can’t have a discussion on what’s real or not with COVID, how are we going to have one about the ocean’s ecosystems and Earth systems and our collective future?” Indeed.
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” ~ Aldous Huxley
The foundation beneath our house of cards is beginning to buckle and heave. For far too long, humans have poked the sleeping monster of abrupt climate change and it’s starting to awaken. Thus far, nearly a thousand deaths in British Columbia alone are likely attributable to hyperthermia caused by a persistent heat dome that has spiked temperatures to unprecedented levels. Take note that we are seeing these unreal temperature spikes at the end of a cooler La Nina cycle. When these heat domes form during the next warmer El Nino cycle, the results will be disastrous. We have now made such mass casualty events 150 times more likely with our heat-trapping gases which have doubled the earth’s energy imbalance in just the last 15 years. Over a billion sea creatures are estimated to have cooked to death off the western shores of Canada. “Eventually, we just won’t be able to sustain these populations of filter feeders on the shoreline to be anywhere near the extent that we’re used to,” says Chris Harley, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia. This will have massive effects up and down many ecological networks. Remember last year when Australia’s mega-fires killed or harmed 3 billion animals? I thought that horrific trauma would be mankind’s epiphany on climate change, but it’s clear that as long as there is a dollar to be made there will be justification for genocide and ecocide. The planet’s last remaining natural resources and biodiversity are being liquidated at breakneck speed in order to maintain the colossal enterprise of industrial civilization.
Modern society is more connected than ever digitally, but not emotionally or intimately. Too fragmented and dysfunctional to save itself, we exist not as human beings but as consumers and statistical numbers on a spreadsheet. Thus it is easy to write off the millions of deaths from industrial pollution as a cost of doing business, especially when the rules of the game are written for shareholders far removed from the damage being wrought. Our suicidal march into the abyss seems to be preordained because we have paid no heed to an endless stream of dire scientific reports and warnings that span decades. Like the collapse of the Surfside apartment building in Miami where the residents lived oblivious to warnings signs from decades ago, the collapse of industrial civilization will follow a similar response to anthropogenic climate breakdown. At this late stage, techno-optimists still cling to the belief that somehow we can adapt and thrive in an inhospitable and deteriorating post-Holocene epoch. At the same time, disinformation and propaganda continue to be spread by those who are outright denying the growing existential threat. The end result is the same, no matter which side prevails. Humans can’t even agree on what is reality, so how could they possibly organize a coherent response in time:
There is no escape from this cage modern man has constructed for himself. As lead scientist Dr. Robert Rohde at @BerkeleyEarth points out, 78% of humanity’s energy systems are powered by fossil fuels as of 2020. Oil and gas took 90 years to displace coal as the main energy source, illustrating that transitions take a very long time and ‘renewables’ remain a small fraction of total energy consumed. Scientists are becoming increasingly unnerved:
“We should be alarmed because the IPCC models are just not good enough,” Dame Julia Slingo of the @metoffice says.
“The obvious acceleration of the breakdown of our stable climate simply confirms that – when it comes to the climate emergency – we are in deep, deep s***!” says UCL’s @ProfBillMcGuire. “Many in the climate science community would agree, in private if not in public.”
“It blows my mind that we could get the temperatures that we’re observing here in the Pacific north-west, especially on the west sides of the Cascades that have that proximity to the ocean, that it could get that hot for so many days in a row,” said Nick Bond, Washington state climatologist. “I would have been willing to guess something like that in the middle of the century, in the latter part of the century.”
“The extreme nature of the record, along with others, is a cause for real concern,” says veteran scientist Professor Sir Brian Hoskins. “What the climate models project for the future is what we would get if we are lucky. The models’ behaviour may be too conservative.”
As has been pointed out before, but which is still not accepted let alone understood by the vast majority, is that even if we employed techno-fixes such as Bill Gates’ Solar Radiation Management Company, it would not stop climate change’s evil twin, ocean acidification, which is threatening to collapse the entire marine ecosystem. A recent paper by marine biologists and environmental consultants has warned that human society faces extinction if nothing is done to reverse the destruction of the oceans:
Over the last 70 years since the 1950’s and the production of toxic forever chemicals and plastic, more than 50% of all marine life, including plants and animals under 1 mm in size, have been lost from the world’s oceans, and that decline continues at a rate of 1% year on year…Over the next 25 years, pH will continue to drop from pH8.04 to pH7.95, and carbonate-based life forms will simply dissolve. This will result with an estimated 80% to 90% loss of all remaining marine life when compared to the 1950’s. Becoming carbon neutral will not stop the pH from dropping to 7.95, and even in the unlikely event of the world achieving Net Zero by 2030 it will not stop the pH dropping to less than pH7.95. Coupled with the micro-plastic and toxic chemical stressors on marine life, the GOES team believe there will be a trophic cascade collapse of the entire marine ecosystem.
Adding to this warning is another recent study showing that freshwater lakes are losing oxygen at a rate 9.3 times that of the oceans:
That matters, because not only do we get much of our drinking water from lakes and use them for recreational activities, but they support an extensive variety of species. “These substantial declines in oxygen potentially threaten biodiversity, especially the more oxygen-sensitive species,”…Rose identified a second problem too: Deep water is becoming less clear because of a host of factors including erosion, algal growth, and fertilizer runoff from nearby agricultural fields and residential developments. Murkier waters make plants less likely to survive, which means less photosynthesis and less oxygen down below. And that, of course, is bad news for the lakes’ creatures. “Just like humans, every complex life form on the planet depends on oxygen,” Rose says. “In water, that’s in the dissolved form.”
There was a study a few years ago which concluded that deoxygenation of the world’s waters from a warming world is what really drove the end-Permian mass extinction. The lead author is quoted as saying:
“This study shows that we’re on that same road toward extinction, and the question is how far down it we go.”
Keep in mind that we don’t have to reach the same elevated levels of CO2 in past geologic extinction events for things to get really nasty, causing modern civilization to crumble. Remember also that the Anthropocene Extinction has multiple prongs such as chemical and plastic pollution, deforestation, and other manmade pressures on the environment that did not exist in Earth’s history. According to paleontologist Dr. Peter Ward, all major extinctions occurred when CO2 levels exceeded 1000ppm. Past extinction events took hundreds of thousands to millions of years to play out, but our current rate of change is 25,000 times faster than the last known event (Paleocene Thermal Extinction) which took a million years for CO2 to increase by 100ppm. We are on track to reach 1000ppm within a century, but we’ll never get there of our own volition because our civilization will be toast long before then; however, once tipping points in the climate system are breached, positive feedback loops will have been set in motion that will propel CO2 levels upward beyond our control. For instance, the Amazon is now emitting more carbon than it is absorbing. In an interview four years ago, Dr Ward gave this warning:
“…we really are going to have unintended consequences and much more rapid heating than even the models say — for the simple reason that the [IPCC] models are highly conservative, too conservative.”
You may be asking yourself when humans will finally wise up and end this madness. Henri L Vichier-Guerre, a reader of this blog, recently posted a quote from a very good book entitled Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change by Clive Hamilton in 2010:
…even with the most optimistic set of assumptions – the ending of deforestation, a halving of emissions associated with food production, global emissions peaking in 2020 and then falling by 3 per cent a year for a few decades – we have no chance of preventing emissions rising well above a number of critical tipping points that will spark uncontrollable climate change. The Earth’s climate would enter a chaotic era lasting thousands of years before natural processes eventually establish some sort of equilibrium. Whether human beings would still be a force on the planet, or even survive, is a moot point. One thing seems certain: there will be far fewer of us.
As Henri L Vichier-Guerre points out, none of those optimistic things have happened in the intervening years. On the contrary, the ecological destruction has accelerated and the chances of anyone at all surviving grows more remote with each passing year. Henri goes on to quote the following on why no one in any significant seat of power is talking about our impending doom:
Not everyone believes we should be completely forthright with the general public about the depths of our crisis, including many of those in our Government.
Because it’s far too late to do anything to mitigate the crisis.
Far too late to avoid a global environmental, ecological and economic catastrophe.
This may go some way to explaining why the general public is still not being told the truth by Governments around the world.
It may go some way to explaining why many of the super-rich have already set up lavish underground ‘doomsday bunkers’ where they and their families can bug out when the shit hits the fan.
We have plenty of bread and circus distractions to keep us preoccupied until the very end. Television did not get its name ‘The Boob Tube’ for nothing. Now we have the infinite scroll of websites to hypnotize and control the masses. Click that ‘Like’ button. Sophisticated social media algorithms feed you what you want to see and hear 24/7. Cognitive biases are reinforced and facts no longer matter in a world suffering from severe truth decay. Aldous Huxley’s vision of a world driven by absolute consumerism that sacrifices human values and controls the masses with a non-stop supply of diversions via mindless entertainment and sensorial stimulation has become a dystopic reality. Just as in his book, it’s all happening in broad daylight with the tacit acceptance of everyone as we watch the world burn.
It’s rather jarring to see an expert like Tim Garrett, whose work I have followed for many years, come out and say so bluntly that we will not do the steps needed to save ourselves. And the reason is very simple…
People will raise hell if their right to pollute and consume is severely curtailed. We see this today with people’s refusal to simply wear a damn mask and do what’s for the greater good in a global pandemic. Now can you imagine the outrage when they are told they have to drastically reduce their living standards to prevent catastrophic climate change, a threat we cannot see but which will nevertheless destroy us in the long run? The reality that humans are causing the climate to warm, with catastrophic consequences, demands radical government intervention in the market as well as collective action on an unprecedented scale. This has been known for decades and those catastrophic consequences are now coming to fruition, yet we remain a carbon-based, growth-oriented civilization.
The later the “peak” the harder the reductions, bearing in mind that it is the area under the lines (cumulative emissions) which ensures a 2°C outcome. The 2020 peak (above) indicates the “unprecedented” 10% reductions trajectory giving only a 50/50 chance of staying under 2°C.
Prof Kevin Anderson says there is no longer a non radical option, and for developed economies to play an equitable role in holding warming to 2°C (with 66% probability) emissions compared to 1990 levels would require at least a 40% reduction by 2018, 70% reduction by 2024, and 90% by 2030. This would require “in effect a Marshall plan for energy supply”. Low-carbon supply technologies cannot deliver the necessary rate of emission reductions, and they need to be complemented with rapid, deep and early reductions in energy consumption, what Anderson calls a radical emission reduction strategy. All this suggests that even holding warming to a too high 2°C limit now requires an emergency approach. Emergency action has proven fair and necessary for great social and economic challenges we have faced before. Call it the great disruption, the war economy, emergency mode, or what you like; the story is still the same, and it is now the only remaining viable path.
~ David Spratt, The Myth of Burnable Carbon, Climate Code Red, 2014.
Not only do we need to halt future CO2 emissions, but we need to magically extract CO2 already in the atmosphere with technology that does not exist. Quoting Prof Anderson from last month:
…in 2020 such technologies remain highly speculative, with a few very small laboratory/pilot schemes now operating, with other proposed technologies still in the imagination of academics and tech-entrepreneurs. This faith in utopian technology reflects a deep and systemic bias that has hugely undermined the real scale of the mitigation challenge and misinformed policy makers for many years.
“3D visualization” of the Australian fires by Anthony Hearsey, compiled from NASA satellite data collected across the span of a month/an injured koala bear sits alone on the ‘apocalyptic’ Kangaroo Island
The year is 2020 and climate change-related disasters are in full swing while at the same time, the most influential country in the world is under the leadership of someone who calls scientists “foolish fortune tellers.” Australia, another country being led to its slaughter by the willfully and criminally ignorant, is literally going up in flames as we speak. Its rich millennia-old evolutionary legacy is disappearing before our eyes. The pictures of charred kangaroo corpses entangled in barbed wire fences and koala bears curled up in the fetal position as they tried to flee the fires are gut-wrenching and should be a wake-up call to our leaders. The platypus, another of the country’s iconic creatures, is dying off in drought-stricken cesspools. To make matters worse, recent heavy rains are causing massive fish kills as bushfire ash washes into rivers. More than a billion creatures(excluding frogs, insects, other invertebrates, or livestock) are estimated to have perished, and the wildlife that do manage to survive the country’s apocalyptic conditions are now at risk of starvation. Scientists fear these fires are causing the extinction of entire species of insects which play a vital role in “processing waste, pollination, providing nutrition for other species, and myriad other ecological functions.” While warming at twice the global rate from humanity’s fossil fuel binge, Australia continues to be the biggest net exporter of coal in the world, thus fueling its own conflagration.
The Australian mega-fires are not a one-off, but just the latest manifestation of an increasingly disrupted global climate system. Australia’s fate was predicted by scientists many years ago. The forever legacy of greenhouse gas emissions means the dust won’s settle in any time scale appreciable to humans. Sea levels will continue to rise for millennia, droughts and storms will grow in frequency and intensity, thousand-year rains will become common occurrences, entire ecosystems will unravel, and the human experiment will undoubtedly come to an end. To quote an Australian on Reddit:
This is what disturbs me about my countrymen. This is not just a one-off terrible event, this is a permanent step down, a large nail in our collective coffin. Long before we recover from this, we will suffer it again, and again. Those poor animals. Worse than being glorified, or not televised, our collapse is being looked at without seeing. It is misunderstood and denied.
For those not from here I’d say that one can’t overstate what is happening here, it is truly awful. We will never recover.
Australia’s annual fire season is only at its midpoint, yet the massive pulse of carbon from these bushfires is now estimated at 900 million tons —double the country’s annual emissions. As horrific as the fires have made life on land, what’s happening in Australia’s oceans out of site and mind is equally disturbing, but of course this is not confined to Australia. Scientists have found that a ‘heat blob’ in the north Pacific ocean killed a million seabirds and wiped out 100 million cod.
We are destroying the life support systems to which all creatures, including man, are dependent, yet it does not appear that any climate disaster no matter how catastrophic will alter mankind’s tragic path to extinction. Wiping out an entire continent’s flora and fauna does not register on the Stock Market. No number of five-alarm fire warnings planet Earth sends will be heeded by this cabon-fueled corporate kleptocracy which carries us all toward a very dark future. Why would we expect any differently from an economic paradigm that tolerates no disruption as it plunders the planet in search of the almighty dollar? A report from two years ago called Australia’s extinction crisis a “national disgrace” and described its institutions tasked with protecting threatened plants and animals as “broken”. We see today that nothing has changed to prevent Australia’s natural treasures from disappearing into the black void of the Anthropocene extinction, never to be seen or heard from again. In fact, current assessments show extinction rates are accelerating:
Nature is in ‘unprecedented’ decline. A substantial proportion of assessed species are threatened with extinction and overall trends are deteriorating, with extinction rates increasing sharply in the past century.
This decline is a direct result of human activity, the most devastating being changes in land and sea use, including natural habitat destruction.
Since 1980, greenhouse gas emissions have doubled, raising average global temperatures by at least 0.7 degrees Celsius. 75% of fossil fuel burning and anthropogenic CO2 emissions in the atmosphere has occurred since 1970; their effects are just beginning to be felt.
Increased human population and per capita consumption is a key driver of the above.
By destroying the foundations of Earth’s interconnected web of life, we are threatening our own health and existence.
I am loath to repeat these numbers because no price can be placed on intact ecosystems, but the economic costs of this year’s fire season in Australia are estimated to be approaching $100 billion, the costliest natural disaster in that country’s history. And in the U.S., the last decade has been ‘unprecedented‘:
The U.S. billion-dollar disaster damage costs over the last decade (2010-2019) were also historically large, exceeding $800 billion from 119 separate billion-dollar events. After adjusting for inflation, the U.S. experienced more than twice the number of billion-dollar disasters during the 2010s than the 2000s decade: 119 versus 59…Clearly, the historically large U.S. losses from hurricanes and wildfires over the last few years have further skewed the total distribution of extreme weather costs. This increase reflects a combination of increased exposure, vulnerability and the fact the climate change is playing an increasing role in the frequency of some types of extremes that lead to billion-dollar disasters.
The finance industry is starting to see that climate change is an existential crisis, yet offer no alternative to their ideological stalemate of infinite growth on a finite planet. In fact, they believe that the personal sacrifices needed to halt greenhouse gas emissions will create a public backlash towards such efforts. In other words, business-as-usual will rule the day until the hard laws of physics, chemistry, and biology make our bubble economy impossible. We’re undergoing that process right now as anthropogenic climate disruption returns planet Earth to the chaotic climatic conditions of the Pleistocene —a time in which organized societies and agriculture will be impossible. Water shortages, degraded soils, and loss of pollinators will only compound the problem. No amount of accounting tricks will bring back the habitability of the planet.
Cheap and abundant fossil fuels have given us modern science and technology which have allowed humans to feel detached and independent from nature, but when this civilization inevitably collapses we will once again be at the mercy of the natural world. If we have destroyed the biosphere and set in motion a mass extinction event at a time when we strongly need to rely on nature, then our prospects for survival are very grim indeed! Yet another study released this week shows that Earth’s biodiversity is crashing under a perfect storm of global warming, extreme weather events, and human activity. Collapse of industrial civilization and its vast amount of specialization along with a simultaneous planet-wide ecological collapse can very easily lead to human extinction. It’s not hard to imagine a Third World War being ignited by deteriorating environmental conditions and resource depletion as nations fall under the sway of propaganda from demagogues inciting fear, hatred, and violence.
With Earth Overshoot Day arriving ever earlier each year, we have arrived at the last stage of global civilization’s doubling time. The next twenty years will be the final tick of the clock in which our mass resource extraction, consumption, and waste irreparably damage the planet’s regenerative abilities and life support systems. Decades of greenwashing, empty rhetoric, and regulatory capture by the fossil fuel industry have brought us to this precipice:
As you can see, any mitigation efforts at this late date rely heavily on the fantasy of carbon capture with nonexistent technologies that, truthfully, will never scale up to the enormous problem. To some degree or another, we are all in denial of what is unfolding in our final century as we go about our daily lives within a set of living arrangements completely incompatible to the survival of our descendants. Everyone is riding the peak of industrial civilization as we watch the world fall apart on our smart phones and LED TVs. In the meantime, the nightly news drones on about hyperpartisan politics and economic growth. That barely a vague mention is made in the news cycle of the most important story in mankind’s history tells you all you need to know about who controls mass media and why the story of our imminent demise will remain buried.
Our fossil record will be comprised mainly of plastics, radioactive waste, and billions of human bones and that of our domesticated animals. The remnants of wild animals will be extremely rare since we have supplanted them with our livestock. All civilizations, especially complex ones, eventually collapse. Ours, like many before, will be undone by overshoot of the environment’s carrying capacity, albeit this time on a planetary scale and with no second chance for a do-over.
When a 16-year-old girl named Greta Thunberg spoke with trembling anger of the unspeakable crimes today’s adults are committing against her and future generations, a chill ran down my spine. She will be alive to see the pulses of rapid sea level rise, the unraveling of industrial agriculture, the mass migration of hundreds of millions of climate refugees, and the disintegration of Earth’s biosphere. Today’s world with the ever-worsening breakdown of the biosphere is much more dangerous than during the Cold War when the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation hung in the air like the sword of Damocles, as expressed by President Kennedy: “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.” Not only does the threat of nuclear war persist, the sword of abrupt climate breakdown now looms ever larger as governments are rendered impotent.
Scientists and the Red Cross recently warned the world is currently suffering at least one climate catastrophe per week and nearly two million people per week are needing humanitarian assistance. A UN global assessment confirms the planet is currently experiencing 2,500 conflicts over fossil fuel, water, food and land — conflicts directly related to the ongoing collapse of the earth’s biodiversity. No civilization in history has faced a complete reshuffling of the planet’s biosphere, let alone the ecological armageddon brought on by a Pandora’s box of pollutants from industrial civilization. Microplastics are literally raining from the sky. Irrevocably out-of-step with the natural world, modern civilization is destroying its host ecosystem by altering the geochemistry of the planet. A mass extinction event unlike any in Earth’s history is underway. Even if a small fraction of the global population survives this overshoot, it will take 10 million years for biodiversity to bounce back. Since atmospheric CO2 will ultimately be drawn down through a very slow natural process called sedimentation, the Earth will not reach pre-industrial CO2 levels againfor more than 100,000 years. The last time CO2 levels were this high was 3 millions years ago during the Pliocene when temperatures were 3-4°C(5-7°F) higher globally than today, and sea levels were 15-20 meters(50-65 feet) higher. It was too warm for glacial ice sheets to even exist in the northern hemisphere.
At 412 ppm and rising, experts said temperature rises of 3-4C are likely now locked in.
What does any honest scientist have to say about mankind’s prospects in a 4°C world:
“We have already observed impacts of climate change on agriculture. We have assessed the amount of climate change we can adapt to. There’s a lot we can’t adapt to even at 2C. At 4C the impacts are very high and we cannot adapt to them.” Rachel Warren, University of East Anglia
“Thinking through the implications of 4 degrees of warming shows that the impacts are so significant that the only real adaptation strategy is to avoid that at all cost because of the pain and suffering that is going to cost.” Prof. Neil Adger, University of Exeter
“…there is also no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible. A 4°C world is likely to be one in which communities, cities and countries would experience severe disruptions, damage, and dislocation, with many of these risks spread unequally. It is likely that the poor will suffer most and the global community could become more fractured, and unequal than today. The projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur.” World Bank report (2012) Turn down the heat: why a 4°C warmer world must be avoided
People are completely oblivious to our dependence on the complex adaptive systems that allow humans to exist and persist. To be clear, when the global temperature rises by 4°C within this century it will be faster than the blink of a geological eye, and we, along with 80% or more of the planet’s species are finished. 96% of all marine species and more than two-thirds of terrestrial species perished during the Great Dying at the Permian-Triassic interface. Global mean temperature at that time rose an estimated 5-8°C over a timespan of 3,000-20,000 years. A 4°C rise over just two centuries will be a rate of warming 15 to 100 times faster than that past extinction event. At this speed of warming, regions would experience temperature spikes of 10-15 degrees above normal in some months. Ecosystems would implode and the services they provide that sustain us would be obliterated. Virtually every vertebrate species on Earth would disappear, along with most plants and many invertebrates.
At just 1°C of warming we are already seeing major ecosystems such as coral reefs unraveling. Hurricanes so powerful that they require a new category now barrel across the Atlantic ocean and completely decimate islands; the cataclysmic Storms of our Grandchildren that Hansen warned about have only just begun. Arctic permafrost melt has already exceeded 2090 projections. It was economist William Nordhaus that set the 2°C warming target in 1975, not scientists. What did he get for this dangerous speculation, divorced from empirics? The Nobel, naturally. These days he is saying 3.5°C is just fine. John Kerry says we cannot leave the climate emergency in the hands of the neanderthals in power, but I dare say that anyone promoting mainstream economic theory is guilty of omnicide. Capitalism’s “extractivism” has turned the entire planet into a sacrifice zone.
Grand Bahama island before/after Hurricane Dorian made landfall, Sept 1, 2019
The rise of political ‘populism’ and the election of reactionary politicians in the U.S. and abroad has thrown yet another monkey wrench into any possibility of tackling the climate crisis. The demagogic Trump administration is simply burying any scientific evidence and ignoring its government’s own research on such things as the recent surge in climate refugees from Latin America due to climate-induced food insecurity. Russia and Brazil have both encouraged and precipitated the wildfire infernos raging in their countries. The catastrophe unfolding in the Amazon is a direct result of President Bolsonaro’s neoliberal policies designed to plunder the Amazon much like Trump’s dismantling of the EPA and deregulation of corporations. Both ignore the science of climate change and the reality of ecological collapse. In the case of Russia’s Putin, it was a cold economic calculus: “If the cost of putting out these remote fires is greater than the profit that could be made from selling the timber, they can decide to let it burn.”
And then there’s the global debt bomb of $250 trillion waiting to explode, not to mention the $200-250 trillion global carbon debt which increases by 16 trillion every year. Meanwhile, banks are quietly shielding themselves from climate catastrophe at taxpayers’ expense by shifting risky coastal mortgages off their books and onto the federal government’s Fannie and Freddie programs. Just as the U.S. government is leaving vulnerable countries to fend for themselves, so are private institutions unloading the risks onto the public. For those at the very top of our economic pyramid scheme who control public policy, dwindling resources will be kept first and foremost for them while everyone else is treated as collateral damage. This dereliction of responsibility, this cutting and running, is how the deteriorating conditions of the world are being handled. Throughout history, society’s elite have shown the same arrogance and hubris in the face of impending calamity. For example, the Fall of the Roman Empire:
If you read the chronicles of the early 5th century AD, you get the impression of total mayhem, with barbarian armies crisscrossing Europe and few, if any, Roman nobles and commanders trying to defend the Empire. Most of them seemed to be maneuvering to find a safe place where they could find safety for themselves. We don’t know what was the final destiny of Rutilius Namatianus but, since he had the time to finish his poem, we may imagine that he could build himself a castle in Southern France and his descendants may have become feudal lords. But not everyone made it. For instance, Paulinus of Pella, another rich Roman, contemporary of Namatianus, desperately tried to hold on his possessions in Europe, eventually considering himself happy just for having been able of surviving to old age.
We see a pattern here: when the rich Romans saw that things were going really out of control, they scrambled to save themselves while, at the same time, denying that things were so bad as they looked. We can see that clearly in Namatianus’ poem: he never ever hints that Rome was doomed. At most, he says, it was a temporary setback and soon Rome will be great again.
Thunberg’s speech alluded to such behavior by the polluting nations:
For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight. You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.
Yes, Greta, they are evil; they have access to every expert on the seriousness of the crisis and they are building walls and saving their own skin while continuing business-as-usual. Lest we forget, the fossil fuel industry’s own scientists accurately predicted the life-threatening effects of its product decades ago and not only did they do nothing to stop it, they funded and orchestrated a vast network of climate denial propaganda which continues to this day and have raced to exploit even more fossil fuels from the melting Arctic. When you consider that billions of people are going to die as a result, their actions become by far the greatest crimes against humanity ever committed. Make no mistake, our society is trading a livable planet for an unsustainable way of life that is irreparably depleting finite resources and altering the earth for eons, making it uninhabitable for organized human societies. Each day of business-as-usual further degrades the planet’s biodiversity.
“As the temperature rises, the patricians will seek refuge as polar migrants, or set sail on heavily armed ocean liners. Millions more will live in underground cities, anywhere to escape the sun. Dazzling reports of new methods for sopping up the gigatons of carbon dioxide will create ripples of enthusiasm and then fade in the next news cycle. Fisheries and agriculture will collapse, drugs will provide little solace, and everyone will curl up in a foetal position in the end, like the ash-entombed victims at Pompeii, whimpering in the inescapable heat. The likelihood of this outcome increases as the years pass and the smoke rises.”
~ Nicholas P. Money, THE SELFISH APE: Human Nature and Our Path to Extinction
"The latest climate simulation models are projecting temperature increases of up to 7°C by the end of this century. Unless you have a magical faith in technology, then that level of temperature rise signifies the potential end of our species…"https://t.co/kdldvQXGCapic.twitter.com/a5DUZOXOG9
NOAA image of the “bomb cyclone” that struck the Midwest earlier this month, triggering flooding in three states and taking the lives of humans and livestock. The National Weather Service described it as “incredible” and a “Great Plains cyclone of historic proportions.”
I first discovered the writings of meteorologist/geoscientist Nick Humphrey with his brutally honest essay The Conversation No One Knows How To Have and since then have followed his posts and comments. He has been featured or quoted in a number of publications such as Mother Jones, New York Times, Washington Post, and Science Alert. Few scientists will publicly tell you how dire things are, but Nick Humphrey is not one to shy away from the truth. What follows is a Q&A interview I held with him on a variety of questions concerning humanity’s future.
ML: Can you give us a brief summary of your background and why you became interested in studying the detrimental effects of climate change?
NH: My background is in meteorology, geosciences and interdisciplinary studies. I have a Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies from South Dakota State University. I completed a Master of Science in Geosciences with a concentration in Applied Meteorology from Mississippi State University in 2016. My education and research studies have been in the societal impacts of weather/climate, natural hazards, and advanced forecasting techniques. I also have a background in global climatology. I did undergraduate research into human decision-making in response to tornado warnings and graduate research in tropical cyclone impacts.
I have been following news and research into climate change for about the past decade. However, I became more intensive in my personal research as a result of an apparent acceleration in climate impacts in the past 4-5 yrs. My study took me to look into the research of scientists such as Dr. Natalia Shakhova, Dr. James White, Dr. Peter Wadhams, Dr. James Lovelock, and Paul Beckwith. I also looked into the interdisciplinary connections between ecological and environmental variables by Dr. Guy McPherson.
ML: What is the most disturbing aspect of anthropogenic global warming that you are seeing today and what are its implications for the future?
NH: To me, the most disturbing aspect is the destruction of ice on the planet. It is commonly discussed among climate scientists that the planet has a high “inertia”. This means in natural climate change, there is typically a significant lag between what is happening in the atmosphere (rise in greenhouse emissions) and climate response (warming of the planet), forcing a more gradual temperature rise.
There are two very important components of Earth’s inertia.
1) Water (which can gain/lose a huge amount of heat with a gradual temperature change) and 2) Ice.
Ice, in my view, is the biggest climate regulator because it can do two things:
1) In the process of melting and freezing, heat is latent or “hidden”. Meaning it does not contribute to temperature, but to melting (heat gain) or freezing (heat loss) of ice.
2) Ice is white, so as a result, it is a high reflector of visible light, preventing absorption of heat at the surface. So it has a double impact. As the planet loses ice because of warming temperatures, there is less total ice to melt and more heat goes into warming the oceans, land and atmosphere. It takes nearly 80 times more heat to melt ice than to warm the same amount of liquid water by 1 degree C/1.8 degrees F. The less ice there is, the lower the planetary albedo, resulting in more heat entering the climate system, creating a feedback loop to destroy ice faster and accelerating planetary heating. The loss of sea ice in the Arctic is a planetary catastrophe.
Trends in sea ice thickness are another important indicator of Arctic climate change. While sea ice thickness observations are sparse, here we utilize the ocean and sea ice model, PIOMAS (Zhang and Rothrock, 2003), to visualize mean sea ice thickness from 1979 to 2019. Updated through February 2019. https://sites.uci.edu/zlabe/arctic-sea-ice-volumethickness/
ML: With the environmental damage that has already been put into the pipeline, modern organized human society may not survive this century and we are already seeing signs of this with the destruction caused by recent extreme weather events. The city of Beira in Mozambique, recently hit by Cyclone Idai, is said to be “the first city to be completely devastated by climate change.” Do you think it’s possible to transition to a net-zero carbon emission civilization within a brief period? Would this not require a radical reconfiguration of every sector of our economy and the way in which we treat each other and the environment?
NH: In short, no, I do not think it is possible to transition to a net-zero carbon emission civilization within a decade. The idea itself is simply absurd because it would require basically returning to a pre-industrial society with none of the benefits which came from building the society provided by fossil fuels. There are some economists and environmentalists who believe you can have “green growth” but such growth leads to further environmental destruction as population and energy demands continue to grow exponentially. In order to go to a net-zero carbon civilization, you must first, ironically, increase carbon usage. More building of solar panels around the world, more building of wind farms, more building of electric cars, more concrete, more metal manufacturing, more highly polluting mining, not only of the land, but more rare Earth metals will be needed from the seas, harming ecosystems and polluting the oceans. Meanwhile, none of this stops climate change because, as you mention, there is already much damage in the pipeline.
At 500 parts per million of equivalent carbon dioxide concentration, enough greenhouse gases are currently in the atmosphere to ultimately warm the planet 4-5 degrees C/7-9 F above 1700s temperatures, raise the sea level by 220 feet/67 meters (assuming 1 ppm CO2 equivalent = 1 ft sea level rise, based on past longer-term paleoclimate change response), remove significant amounts of soil moisture, leading to the destruction of agriculture. And this is without any other carbon releases or feedbacks. Building more in an attempt to maintain civilized society with high energy consumption makes this all worse.
ML: There are around 454 nuclear reactors around the world with several dozen more currently under construction. At least 100 U.S., European and Asian nuclear power stations are built just a few meters above sea level. With accelerated sea level rise and stronger storms on the horizon, we should be planning right now to decommission and close down these future nuclear disasters. What is your stance on nuclear energy?
NH: Nuclear reactions themselves are an effective way to produce energy. The problem is that, like any form of energy, it requires energy to produce it and leaves waste products. Fossil fuels are needed to build the nuclear reactors (especially all the concrete), water is needed to keep the reactors fuel rods cool, and nuclear waste results from the use of the reactors which must be stored safely for thousands of years. It requires civilization to function for thousands of more years to keep it functional and safe or alternatively decades to properly decommission them. Given sea level rise is accelerating with a doubling of approximately 7-10 years (possibly causing a meter of sea level rise as early as the 2040s-2050s, faster in some regions like the US East Coast), I do not believe we should be building more nuclear reactors and should decommission all others as quickly as possible to save what remains of the natural world from devastating impacts of nuclear failures if civilization collapses and humans are unable to care for those sites.
I make note, it is not only nuclear power stations on coastal areas which are of concern. Stations located along rivers are at risk as well…from increasingly larger floods, drying rivers which are used for cooling, and warming rivers which do not bring in cool enough water to keep the reactors cool. These events are already happening.
ML: What do you think about geoengineering schemes by scientists to dim the sun in order to reduce global warming and buy humanity more time to “fix” the problem? Proposed technology that could pull CO2 out of the atmosphere at the scale required is generally considered a pipe dream. At what point do you think our civilization will lose faith in technology to solve all our problems?
NH: Geoengineering schemes, to me, are equivalent to using a small band-aid for a large stab wound. It is and will be completely overwhelmed by what is happening. Spraying aerosols over the Arctic to try to cool the Arctic with increased summer cloud formation doesn’t solve the fact that there is 500 ppm of equivalent carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere which cannot be removed with the speed and scale required. You are not dealing with regions where the geoengineering is being done in closed systems. You cool one area, other areas will respond by warming further. You cool one region, atmospheric and ocean circulations will develop and intensify to transport heat to the cooling area to try to equalize the temperature imbalance. Direct ocean heating from below the ice will make it difficult to grow thick ice and not allow ice to reform in the polar night. These heat balances have always existed of course, but it was still cool enough to allow significant ice to exist in the Arctic. The atmosphere is now too altered to allow widespread sea ice to exist in the near future and geoengineering doesn’t prevent this or even delay it in a meaningful way.
ML: In the recent extreme flooding in the U.S. Midwest, farmers suffered devastating losses with similar food shocks on the rise around the world. How do you see the world feeding itself in such an uncertain future, especially when industrial monoculture is actually increasing worldwide?
NH: In short, I do not see a way for humans to feed themselves in an organized manner. Using the worse-case estimate for warming since pre-industrial times, the planet’s land air and sea surface has averaged around +1.2 C relative to pre-industrial the past 5 years with a peak of +1.4 C in 2016. The Northern Hemisphere land masses (where most of the food on the planet is grown) are quickly approaching +2 C. And we are already seeing the impacts of both extreme heat and extreme precipitation events on crops which depend on stability at mild temperatures and an expected range of moisture. This will only worsen and in between +1.5-2 C, we will conservatively see a reduction of US crop yields by between 30-46% of recent levels. By +4 C, that falls to 63-82% as aridification —droughts which are never-ending— dominate the Great Plains/Midwest and California Central Valley with very extreme summer heat and occasional intense rainfall as well as destructive flood events, exacerbating soil erosion.
We are entering a range of weather conditions not supportive of agriculture. And not simply monoculture. All agriculture. Even other ways of doing Ag require stable weather conditions, seasonality, soils and ability to conduct economic activity between peoples. None of this will be possible in these conditions. And that assumes the ecosystems which support agriculture also remain stable and available and that is not likely given the ongoing global extinction of insects.
NASA before/after imagery of flooding near Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.
ML: Many mainstream scientists feel that to “work within” the system, they have to use language that politicians and economists can understand in order to maintain credibility, i.e. the “value of ecosystem services”. Attempting to place a monetary value on every aspect of nature while externalizing the environmental cost of pollution is a major flaw of our economic system. Inaction by governments and corporations on climate change may have already condemned a large percentage of the global population to a premature death. Do you think ecocide should be an international crime?
NH: If ecocide were an international crime, we would all be guilty in some way. Obviously, I do not believe all humans are *equal* in terms of blame. A person living in the US is a far far larger consumer of energy with a bigger carbon footprint than a person in say, Kenya or Indonesia. And of course, the developing world receives cheap products (coal, plastics, etc) from the developed world. However, while greenhouse gas pollution is significant from countries such as the US and China, plastic pollution is significant *everywhere*. Mining pollution is significant everywhere. Deforestation either is or has been in the past significant from Canada to Europe, increasing in the Amazon, the continent of Africa, etc. Water is nearing depletion on the Great Plains, parts of Europe, Australia and falling quickly in the Amazon. We’ve required more energy on this planet for all the technologies which many would consider have enhanced human life and existence on this planet…improved infrastructure, medicines, monoculture farming which did allow for much higher and resilient production of crops, etc. But all of those “improvements” to the human condition come at a cost and that cost is the destruction of the natural world, and ultimately ourselves.
ML: I understand wealthy countries have much larger carbon footprints per capita than the rest of the world due to our unsustainable consumption patterns, but the other much overlooked factor is overpopulation. We are adding roughly 90 million more people onto the planet per year, many of whom are striving to attain a similar western standard of living. Is there any ethical way to control population growth or will nature be the final arbiter? What do you think is the maximum carrying capacity for the Earth’s human population?
NH: Overpopulation is a major problem and factor in the mass extinction ongoing on the planet. However, given the scales required to fix the problem, I do not see a way to fix it which would fix the damage already done to the planet within the timeframes necessary. The only *ethical* means to control overpopulation is to educate a free population (in particular, women must have reproductive freedom) on the benefits to humans by improving the natural world. Laws will fail because it is ultimately an issue of personal physical sovereignty and humans will always fight for personal sovereignty over their bodies as it relates to sex and reproduction vs. govt interference. China’s one-child policy had a lot of unintended consequences. There are other ways to try to “control” but ultimately, what would really be needed is population decline. Given humans are a relatively large land mammal, in order for Earth to have kept ecosystem stability, the human population would have to have stayed in the millions, spread thinly across hospitable regions of the planet as hunter-gatherers. The population of hunter-gatherer/early agricultural humans in the Early Holocene (10-12,000 years ago) is estimated at 1-10 million.
Ultimately, nature appears to be “loading the gun” to make it difficult for the human population to grow much longer; and really, it will crash. The 6th mass extinction is underway and humans will be a part of this given we are at the top of the food web.
ML: Who, living today, serves as a role model and inspiration for you and in what way? Do you follow any particular philosophy in your life?
NH: I’d say one role model of mine is my father. He died in January 2017 after a battle with cancer. He spurred my interest in science as a child and was one who always strongly emphasized the importance of finding the truth, no matter how difficult it was or the barriers that happened to be in the way. Another is Dr. Albert Einstein, who had many personal flaws, but wanted to use science to improve society and found its uses for killing and destruction of life abhorrent. He spoke the truth even when it marginalized him. Also Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who works hard to communicate complex topics in a way that can be understood and appreciated by the average person.
My only philosophy in life is to live my life to the fullest, given the incredible changes underway, and bring truthful information to people who can see what’s happening and want to know “why?”. I’m an interdisciplinarian and work to bring a more comprehensive understanding of the predicament we face to anyone willing to listen.
ML: What do you think of the Dark Mountain Project whose members have “stopped believing in the stories our civilization tells itself”? What new stories should we be telling ourselves in this age of ecological catastrophe and extreme economic inequality?
NH: I’m not familiar with the Dark Mountain Project; however to answer the questions, I think we should stop telling stories about how grand our civilization is and celebrating its attempts to dominate Nature and impose fake human superiority. Civilization, which served the purpose of insulating humans from the dangers Nature posed, has destroyed Nature at the expense of its own growth. This was true long before the development of the modern fossil-fueled world. In order to be sedentary and not be dependent upon the local forces of Nature, we needed to build towns and cities. This requires destroying forests, damming rivers, taking over land with agriculture we would control the growth and development of. This means other species, who could not stop us, lost territory. Each improvement in protecting ourselves from Nature meant more population growth, more resource needs, more energy, which in turn meant more destruction and more attempts at control. Humanity, as a hunter-gatherer species, meant our growth was dependent upon what we could find for food and water within the bounds of the climate. Our ability to enclose and mass manipulate our environment and resources meant we could grow beyond our resources and, in the process, mass pollute the world. Civilization has been an 8,000 year attempt to win a war against Nature. A war we are losing because Nature —following the laws which have governed the Universe for 14 billion years— always wins.
Nature is in control, not humans. Even our current catastrophes which were sparked by humanity’s activities were ultimately governed by the laws of Nature (physics, thermodynamics, chemistry, etc). We never were separate from it all, but a part of it. We should be telling ourselves to do what we feel is right to respect Nature and its unbreakable laws, accepting our place in the Universe as just one of many species which have a finite existence on this planet.
“My early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
~ David Buckel
Today’s global consumption of fossil fuels now stands at roughly five times what it was in the 1950s, and one-and-half times that of the 1980s when the science of global warming had already been confirmed and accepted by governments with the implication that there was an urgent need to act. Tomes of scientific studies have been logged in the last several decades documenting the deteriorating biospheric health, yet nothing substantive has been done to curtail it. More CO2 has been emitted since the inception of the UN Climate Change Convention in 1992 than in all previous human history. CO2 emissions are 55% higher today than in 1990. Despite 20 international conferences on fossil fuel use reduction and an international treaty that entered into force in 1994, manmade greenhouse gases have risen inexorably. If it has not dawned on you by now, our economic and political systems are ill-equipped to deal with this existential threat. Existing international agreements are toothless because they have no verification or enforcement and do not require anything remotely close to what is needed to avoid catastrophe. The 20 warmest years on record have been in the past 22 years, with the top four in the past four years, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Ice loss from Antarctica has sextupled since the 1970s and Greenland’s pace of ice loss has increased fourfold since 2003. The Arctic ocean has lost 95% of its old ice and total volume of ice in September, the lowest ice month of the year, has declined by 78% between 1979 and 2012. With grim implications for the future, Earth’s air conditioner —the cryosphere— is melting away.
An article from a few months ago lays bare the reality that throughout the past two hundred years and with recent “alternative” or “renewable” energy sources, humans have only added to the total energy they consume without ever having displaced the old, polluting ones. An alternative energy outlook report by Wood Mackenzie foresees that even in a carbon-constrained future, fossil fuels would still make up 77% of global energy consumption in 2040. The world economy remains hopelessly tethered to fossil fuels. We are kidding ourselves if we think there will be any sort of orderly transition to sustainability with which modern civilization appears to be wholly incompatible. We are, as Nate Hagens says, energy blind.
Modern civilization has become so intertwined with petroleum-based products that their remnants are now found in our excrement. It seems no living thing can escape microplastics, not even the eggs of remote Arctic birds. This should come as no surprise if you look at the scale of the problem. Plastic production has grown from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to roughly 400 million metric tons today(more than 99% of plastics made today are with fossil fuels and only a tiny fraction of it recycled). There are five massive oceanic gyres filled with pelagic plastics, chemical sludge and other human detritus; one of the these gyres, named the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is three times the size of France and growing exponentially. The health and environmental effects are grim; organized society may not even be around to examine the long-term effects of these persistent synthetic materials:
“Health problems associated with plastics throughout the lifecycle includes numerous forms of cancers, diabetes, several organ malfunctions, impact on eyes, skin and other sensory organs, birth defects” and many other impacts, said David Azoulay, a report author and managing attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law…”And those are only the human health costs, they do not mention impacts on climate, impacts on fisheries or farmland productivity.”
Making things more efficient and convenient has its limits, but humans keep trying to beat the consequences of Earth’s dwindling natural resources while ignoring the environmental costs. Jevons paradox be damned! To make matters worse, the fossil fuel industry has employed a well-financed and highly effective global disinformation campaign to confuse and sow doubt in the public mind about the reality of climate change. And to top it all off, we have a leader who reinforces the ignorance of climate change deniers:
It’s a cruel irony that this President’s emergency declaration for building a border wall comes at a time when migration from Latin America is near a 40-year low and the majority of those now seeking asylum are families fleeing climate change-related disasters. This President and the craven politicians who line up behind him are an abomination! At a time when compassion, cooperation, and scientific reasoning are needed to deal with the multiple crises we face, politicians are instead conjuring up xenophobia, racism, and conspiracy theories. As inequality grows and the once-stable climate continues to unravel, expect the super-rich to barricade themselves behind heavily fortified mansions while treating climate refugees and the most vulnerable among us with extreme prejudice. A new study shows increasingly severe weather events are fueling the number of ‘food shocks’ around the world and jeopardizing global security:
These “food shocks” —or, sudden losses to food production— are hitting local communities hard, in addition to impacting the global economy, with long-term implications. “Critically, shock frequency has increased through time on land and sea at a global scale,” the study notes. “Geopolitical and extreme-weather events were the main shock drivers identified, but with considerable differences across sectors.”
Hawaii is losing plant species at the rate of one per year, when it should be roughly one every 10,000 years. “We have a term called ‘plant-blindness’… People simply don’t see them; they view greenery as an indistinguishable mass, rather than as thousands of genetically separate and fragile individuals…”
The bedrock of our food, clean water and energy is biodiversity, but its loss now rivals the impacts of climate change. Without biodiversity, our food sources, both plants and animals, will succumb to diseases. Microbes and hundreds of different life forms interact to make soils fertile. Without them, soils will be barren and unable to support life. Monocultures can only be held together through artificial means(fossil fuels, inorganic fertilizer and toxic pesticides) and are highly vulnerable to diseases, yet industrial monoculture farming continues to dominate the globe. Most Worrisome are the recent studies indicating that biodiversity loss raises the risk of ‘extinction cascades’. Insect numbers, the base of the terrestrial food chain, are in steep decline and starfish, a common keystone species in coastal ecosystems, are facing extinction due to some sort of wasting disease likely caused by climate change:
“Many of these outbreaks are heat sensitive. In the lab, sea stars got sick sooner and died faster in warmer water… A warming ocean could increase the impact of infectious diseases like this one…We could be watching the extinction of what was a common species just 5 years ago.”
And here is Professor Stephen Williams discussing the recent mass death of Australia’s flying fox bats in which 30,000 —a third of their remaining population— died in a single extreme heat wave:
“A lot of tropical species are much closer to the edge of the tolerances, so they very much are the ‘canary in the coalmine’ for the world in what’s going to start happening with climate change…The fact that we’re now seeing things endangered occur in places that you would’ve thought to be pretty secure, that’s the scary bit…I suspect the next wave of extinctions is going to be mostly due to extreme events — extreme climate events like heatwaves.”
These disturbing headlines indicate to me that the Sixth Mass Extinction is gathering pace and the real stock market underlying our very existence and survival is crashing before our eyes!!! Four of the last five mass extinction events were preceded by a disruption of the carbon cycle. When renowned paleoclimatologist Lee Kump was asked whether comparisons to today’s global warming and that of past mass extinctions are really appropriate, he ominously said, “Well, the rate at which we’re injecting CO2 into the atmosphere today, according to our best estimates, is ten times faster than it was during the End-Permian. And rates matter. So today we’re creating a very difficult environment for life to adapt, and we’re imposing that change maybe ten times faster than the worst events in Earth’s history.” Humans are recreating the past extinction known as The Great Dying at a much faster pace and at many more human-forced levels that leave no ecosystem on Earth intact.
By orders of magnitude, the human endeavor has grown much too large for the Earth to support; climate change, plastic pollution, and biodiversity loss are just a few of the symptoms of this global ecological overshoot. The people who have studied this problem for years and from every angle have come to the same conclusion —technology simply won’t save us, but that won’t stop humans from experimenting. By far the most effective way to reduce future emissions and resource consumption is to reduce human birth rates, yet the global population is still increasing at about 90 million people per year despite the geographic shift in fertility rates.
Humans recognized decades ago the threats they are now facing, yet nothing was done due to political inaction and industry malfeasance which continues to this very day. The scientists who wrote The Limits to Growth decades ago were expecting our political institutions to take action back in the 1970s, but they were met with ridicule and now we stand at the doorstep of modern civilization’s collapse. Political inaction and regulatory capture by the fossil fuel industry appear to be intractable barriers that have condemned the human race to a hellish future. Anyone waiting for some sort of seminal climate change event that is going to galvanize the world’s leaders into action will be tragically disappointed. If seeing the world’s coral reefs dying, its glaciers disappearing, permafrost melting, and the steady uptick in extreme weather and wildfire events does not spur them to action, it is much too late to hope that any single event will ever do so. The time to act would have been before we were seeing all these environmental degradations and tipping points, not afterward. There is no way to put the CO2 genie back in the bottle. The Earth cannot even begin to reach a new climate state until humans stop emitting the roughly 40 to 50 gigatonnes of CO2 per annum and stop altering and destroying global ecosystems. This fact is our daily nightmare.
A myth that many uninformed people hold is that biospheric health will quickly bounce back after we humans get our act together. Nothing could be further from the truth. Much of the damage we are already seeing is irreversible on human time scales. Positive feedbacks were already occurring at less than 1°C of warming. Many carbon sinks are on the verge of becoming or have already become carbon sources. As we race toward a nightmarish future with no realistic way to stop, we leave behind a “forever legacy” that will haunt mankind for the rest of eternity.
“When you cannot feed your children, you will do anything, even if it means going to war. This is the reality of climate change.” ~ Dr. James Orbinski
80% of the world’s productive agricultural land is in river deltas which are vulnerable to flooding from storm and tidal surges as well as salt penetration inland –as much as 20 km in some cases. Just 1 meter(3.28ft) of sea level rise(SLR) would threaten one third of this food-producing land and render nearly all the barrier islands of the world uninhabitable. (Overly-)Conservative estimates from the IPCC in 2013 predicted 1m of SLR rise by 2100, but the last two decades have seen global sea level increase more than twice as fast as it did in the 20th Century and only recently have scientists realized the true rate of SLR has been grossly underestimated(here and here). James Hansen (et al) has argued all along that 5 meters of sea level rise by the end of the century is possible, taking decades to happen rather than centuries. They conclude that glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica will melt 10 times faster than previous consensus estimates. The last time CO2 levels were at 400ppm was during the Pliocene Era when sea level was 5 to 40m higher (16-131ft); unfortunately, Earth is warming 50 times faster than when it comes out of an ice age. Professor Harold R. Wanless who has studied the geologic sedimentary record says that we are in for a nasty surprise within this century:
Most of the models projecting future sea level rise assume a gradual acceleration of sea level rise through this century and beyond as ice melt gradually accelerates. Our knowledge of how sea level rose out of the past ice age paints a very different picture of sea level response to climate change. At the depth of the last ice age, about 18,000 years ago, sea level was some 420 feet below present level as ice was taken up by large continental ice sheets. Subsequent ice melt was not a gradual acceleration and then deceleration process. Rather it was a series of very rapid pulses of sea level rise followed by pauses. These rapid pulses of rise, from three to thirty feet, were fast enough to leave drowned reefs, sandy barrier islands, tidal inlet deltas, and other coastal deposits abandoned across the continental shelf. That is what happens when climate change warms enough to destabilize some ice sheet sector. It rapidly disintegrates, resulting in a rapid rise.
History has proven considerably worse than the Club of Rome’s projections. The original report made only passing reference to some of the most critical environmental problems of today. In response to this, the Stockholm Resilience Centre identified a set of nine ecological processes regulating land/ocean/atmosphere and their accompanying boundaries within which humans must stay to avoid biospheric collapse. In 2015, researchers found that four of these planetary boundaries had already been breached: biodiversity loss, damage to phosphorous and nitrogen cycles, climate change and land use. None of these critical boundaries were picked up by the original Limits to Growth report. We have destroyed the stability of the Holocene Epoch and continue to wreak havoc with every passing day. In other words, there are many other environmental crises too numerous to list that are coming to a head, and catastrophic sea level rise is just the icing on the burned cake. The last time Earth had such a disruptive species, cyanobacteria altered the atmosphere and killed off all the anaerobic life forms including itself. Ironically, oxygen was the byproduct of the cyanobacteria that proved lethal to those ancient lifeforms and paved the way for the rise of photosynthetic organisms. The cyanobacteria had a 500 million year run, but modern man has only been around for 0.01% of that time. Our large brain has made it possible for us to destroy ourselves in record time.
So you would think that these stark facts laid out before us would be causing panic in the global markets and seats of power around the world because, clearly, no one is safe from this unfolding apocalypse. In what many call the ‘most powerful nation on Earth’, surely a leader must be on the verge of taking the helm of this sinking ship. In any rational world, they would be compelled to battle this planetary emergency with the war-time urgency it demands. In the election year of 2016 there are only two prospects in our corporatocracy, one of whom is so frightening that hundreds of the world’s scientists felt compelled to issue a warning against his possible election. The other candidate seems much more palatable on the surface, but her record and recent emails illustrate just how tortured her positions are on environmental issues. Anyone who has studied the numerous practices that make modern civilization truly unsustainable, the depths of corruption and waste in its global socio-economic system, and how predatory one has to be in order to survive and “succeed’ in it realizes in the end that it wouldn’t matter much who fills that figurehead position. Toeing the line of the dominant culture is a prerequisite for the job. That’s one reason why nations are building walls in response to climate change refugees and putting faith in unproven and unrealistic techno-fixes to save themselves while at the same time drilling for new oil, financing new coal plants, allowing climate goals for corporations to add up to only a quarter of the amount needed to limit warming to 2°C, and giving the shipping industry a pass on curbing its emissions(if shipping was a country it would be the world’s 8th biggest carbon polluter).
The biosphere is collapsing under the weight of 7.5 billion people living off the combustion of a one time endowment of ancient carbon energy, from the factory-farmed produce they eat to the petroleum-based medical supplies that keep them alive. And global population growth may be accelerating at an even greater rate than recent predictions. As Germany has shown, “renewable energies” are nothing more than ‘fossil fuel extenders’ still wedded to fossil-fueled extraction processes for the production and maintenance of those technologies. It’s a shell game of sorts. Industrialized countries will say their carbon footprint has gone down without telling you they’ve moved their dirty industrial operations to Third World countries. Developing countries will make promises of “green growth” while their state-owned banks and companies expand fossil fuel production overseas. We’ve been fooling ourselves for a very long time about what is truly sustainable and will continue to do so as the system falls apart, geoengineering fixes are applied, interstellar space colonization fantasies are dreamed up, and wars are fought for what remains. Humans have constructed a reality incompatible with the well-being of the natural world and the stability of the biosphere, but we won’t be able to escape the rules of physics, chemistry, and biology. We’ve spent generations making the bed we’re going to be lying in, never realizing it’s also our death bed. Time is not on our side.
Most are not listening and our leaders are misleading, so it bears repeating: ‘The Oil Age’ made us all confident idiots with short attention spans. To both candidates: runaway, catastrophic climate change resulting in loss of habitat and mass starvation is our biggest threat.
As a young boy raised in the rigid catechism of the Catholic Church, I was no stranger to contradiction and non sequitur.
The high, arching vaults of cathedral whose vertical volume is designed to put man in his place among the towering edifice of the saints, the superimposed almost miniature scale of the pews, the oppressive silence of a vast and empty church.
The looming spectacle of towering oak confessionals, hushed inside with heavy curtain, and black, pitch black, it takes a few moments to find the kneeling pad and to position yourself near the thin fabric partition panel, a wooden core perforated with small holes from which movement and shadow emerge.
A rustling ensues and an invisible door slides open, exposing the partition to the priest’s chamber on the other side. You cannot see but you can hear.
The priest speaks in a thick Irish brogue, first in Latin then after an appropriate incantation, in English. I tremble in the darkness as the sins of a 12 year tumble out, slowly and haltingly at first, then uncontrollably. A tidal wave of transgressions, the bad words spoken, the stolen candy, the parental disrespect, the poor scholastic performance, all of it comes out. There is no consolation, no hope of salvation, the depths of hell soon to open up and engulf me, the oxygen is gone and I begin to suffocate, the pregnant pause and heavy silence of the invisible priest validates the certainty of my demise.
The priest pauses, taking it all in, his mind weighing the calculus of just penance for such sins of the living. Venial and mortal are weighed against gravitas and malign, the 20 century old calculator passed through the ages whirrs and crackles, and the penance is announced:
“Two laps around the rosary beads and six Hail Mary’s will settle the accounting nicely. To be completed immediately.”
I emerge from the dank confessional into a beam streaming from stained glass clerestory windows, light in step and free of heart, the banality of the exchange from sinner to winner lost in the eager imagination of a 12 year old.
For this is the story of a centuries old institution, full of hypocrisy and theology squandered through the millennia, as it attempts to rehabilitate itself.
The Church occupies a precarious space between irrelevance and populist hypocrisy on the one side, and the frothy wrath of conservative thinking, chaired by Capital on the other. Chastened by its post-Enlightenment fall from grace, the Church tentatively sought out the meager ground of allowable existence bifurcating these two forces.
As a result, the Church’s positions are filtered to maintain an uneasy equilibrium between these opposing dictates.
The Church long ago decided that a post Enlightenment bias toward hypocrisy and irrelevance was preferred, as at least survival was possible. Tangling with the forces of Capital in its unwavering march of exploitation, both of labor and of environment, was clearly a more ominous undertaking than offending suburban church ladies by turning a blind eye towards meaningful social commentary.
But the fetters of Capital were but a primer for the existential challenges the Church has always faced since time immemorial. The conservative Church has millennia of expertise at a very deep level in not only understanding external threats, but in countering them- effectively.
These existential threats come in several forms, but one of the most damaging comes from the positioning of Man within Nature.
The essential premise is the concept of Dominion, a stated Church philosophy that Nature is under the dominion of Man, entirely subservient to and dictated by Man. Dominion taken literally asserts mastery or control over a subject, the fundamentalist view takes this further into (theological) Dominion of government and other religions not compliant with Christianity. Taken in this form, Dominion reflects a dangerous authoritarian system- even fascist- means of societal structure.
The Roman Catholic interpretation allows for Dominion in the context of the greater good, a collectivist view which is not absolute. This is drastically different than the fundamentalist view which has no room for greater good considerations.
We can see the slippery slope emerge and morph through the ages until the intersection with Capital and its attendant system of value production. Herein we see a definition of the “greater good” that becomes increasingly influenced by Capital until it becomes entirely subsumed to represent any conceivable exploitation of the environment in the pursuit of profits.
The Church’s liberalized interpretation of Dominion becomes its own worst enemy.
Another significant factor in the theological scrum of ideologies is the notion of monotheism, versus pantheism and polytheism.
These concepts juggle the position and relationship of Man to the Environment, and a central objective of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular is displacing these alternative theisms by a singular omnipotent and externalized God.
This displacement is essential to establish Christian dominance in all matters-science, and sociology included. Christianity wants no competitors, no sharing of power, no interference from pagan idolatry, it insists on a zero tolerance policy.
Pantheism in particular has a much more integrated understanding of the relationship of Man and Nature by deifying aspects of nature, a position considered heresy by the mainstream Church.
Acknowledging that elements of Nature are sacred is a concession to neo-paganism- an existential threat to the Church which has spent millennia trying to unravel these alternative belief systems.
The Church systematically dismantled these pluralistic options to establish, maintain, and control theological dominance- a strategy that remained effective for 1600 years, notwithstanding a few religious wars and dust-ups along the way.
But what we are left with is a dismissal of Nature, and enforced subservience, and an attack stance towards any belief system that suggests any outsized importance for Nature beyond relying on an externalized God.
These manifestations are relatively benign in a pre-Capitalist world with insignificant populations, but an explosion in population coupled with the intersection of Capital proves to be a poisonous elixir.
The constraints of dominion and a subservient Nature pass through the millennia, benign at first with (relatively) small numbers of humans embedded in a vast tableau of Nature, then exploding into crisis with the intersection of Capital and the Industrial Revolution.
Against the backdrop of the Industrial revolution, the ascendancy of Capitalist value production, and importantly, the tectonic shift from an agrarian lifestyle of self-sufficiency to a wage labor economy, there arises an increasing and profoundly powerful exploitation of the environment.
This manifests in two dimensions, firstly, on the input side as natural resources are extracted at an increasing rate in support not just of an exponentially increasing population, but of the added and significant burden of creating profit for profit’s sake, for which there is no end and no demand limits.
On the output side, the waste products of unlimited value production are unleashed on the environment as recklessly and wantonly as possible, so as to avoid any reduction in surplus value. Controls and environmental regulations are criticized as “job killers” and discarded, a not so subtle reminder that your ability to eat is dependent on their ability to profit.
But the cognitive dissonance of these conditions are painfully obvious, and Capital needs a compelling narrative that will support its ceaseless plunder.
It finds a willing if unlikely partner in the nascent American Christian movement that arose during the early to mid-20th century.
While Catholicism held back from full throated endorsement of the robber baron business model, the Christian fundamentalist and Evangelical movements exploded onto the scene with full endorsement.
In retrospect, the alliance between Christian fundamentalists, Evangelicals, and Capitalists should have been easy to foresee as inevitable. The Catholic Church’s long standing focus on the plight of the poor, and its ascendancy in American society became troubling to many on the Right. The size of the Catholic constituency began to grow within American culture to the extent that the dream of a parallel, Catholic society become feasible to implement, and in fact the Catholic Church did just this, with thousands of Catholic schools built and staffed by (mostly) clergy and nuns.
In and of itself this parallel culture of a differing and more restrictive moral fabric was not especially concerning to conservatives, the focus on the plight of the poor however was very disturbing.
After all, several hundred years of caring for the poor, providing sanctuary within Church buildings, sheltering refugees, etc., one might begin to ask why are these people here, and what conditions exist to precipitate this plight.
And there are more than a few folks who would very much like that these questions not be asked- because they are very afraid of the answers.
In response, the Right girded its loins to prepare for a campaign of discrediting and aggressive preventative measures, posturing against recognizing systematic exploitation of the poor, and eventually, applying the same tactics to environmental exploitation as well. In this fashion, fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians founded a counter offensive against the as yet unspoken undercurrent of Marxist underpinnings buried deep within Catholic theology.
As chronicled in Princeton professor Kevin Kruse’s book “One Nation under God, How Corporate America invented Christianity”, Capital, fearful of the burgeoning support for New Deal policies, began to associate itself with Christianity to establish a moral imperative for so-called free market business practices.
Back in the 1930s, business leaders found themselves on the defensive. Their public prestige had plummeted with the Great Crash; their private businesses were under attack by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal from above and labor from below. To regain the upper hand, corporate leaders fought back on all fronts. They waged a figurative war in statehouses and, occasionally, a literal one in the streets; their campaigns extended from courts of law to the court of public opinion. But nothing worked particularly well until they began an inspired public relations offensive that cast capitalism as the handmaiden of Christianity.
The two had been described as soul mates before, but in this campaign they were wedded in pointed opposition to the “creeping socialism” of the New Deal. The federal government had never really factored into Americans’ thinking about the relationship between faith and free enterprise, mostly because it had never loomed that large over business interests. But now it cast a long and ominous shadow.
Every Christian should oppose the totalitarian trends of the New Deal.
It wasn’t until Billy Graham mobilized the Evangelical right in the early fifties that the movement really took off.
They all believed religiosity, if widely and officially deployed, would be a mighty weapon in the battle against collectivist liberals at home and Communists abroad. As their ally, Billy Graham, preached in 1951 at one of his ever popular crusades, Americans urgently needed to rededicate themselves to “the rugged individualism that Christ brought” to the world.
Accordingly, throughout the 1930s and ’40s, corporate leaders marketed a new ideology that combined elements of Christianity with an anti-federal libertarianism. Powerful business lobbies like the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers led the way, promoting this ideology’s appeal in conferences and P.R. campaigns. Generous funding came from prominent businessmen, from household names like HarveyFirestone, Conrad Hilton, E. F. Hutton, Fred Maytag and Henry R. Luce to lesser-known leaders at U.S. Steel, General Motors and DuPont.
Rev. James W. Fifield, pastor of the elite First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, led the way in championing a new union of faith and free enterprise. “The blessings of capitalism come from God,” he wrote. “A system that provides so much for the common good and happiness must flourish under the favor of the Almighty.”
Christianity, in Mr. Fifield’s interpretation, closely resembled capitalism, as both were systems in which individuals rose or fell on their own. The welfare state, meanwhile, violated most of the Ten Commandments. It made a “false idol” of the federal government, encouraged Americans to covet their neighbors’ possessions, stole from the wealthy and, ultimately, bore false witness by promising what it could never deliver.
This malignant coupling of commerce and Christianity was hugely successful, culminating with the addition of the words “In God We Trust” on all US paper currency in 1957. The stage was set for the usurpation of Christian principles with Capitalist principles, as the saints and martyrs of Christendom were exchanged for the imprint of US president’s faces on US currency.
The problem with focusing on the plight of the poor is that sooner or later, the threads of class consciousness begin to emerge.
The rise to prominence of Latin America within the Catholic Church in the ’60’s and ’70’s brought forward a disruption to the fundamentalist juggernaut operating at full steam in North America.
Led by Gustavo Gutierrez and other Catholic intellectuals, the nascent movement of liberation theology emerged, informed by the subtle undercurrent of Marxist class struggle embedded in Orthodox Catholicism.
At its core, liberation theology re-emphasizes Catholicism from the perspective of the poor.
A more detailed examination of the principles of liberation theology nets some surprising tenements. It turns out much of the first few centuries of Church teaching viewed the poor in a much more sympathetic light, and directly associated exploitation as causality for the condition, and further, assigned a series of accusations of sinfulness at to those who were doing the exploiting.
Hence, one of the primary missions of the Catholic Church was not just to eradicate sin, and to provide recompense for those that succumb, but importantly, to side with and defend the exploited.
The underpinnings of this renewed focus on the poor from early Church teaching reveals that the response to poverty from those more fortunate, should not be just charity giving from surplus, but giving from sustenance as well. In other words, personal sacrifice, but also a rejection of material possessions even to the point of personal suffering.
Further, liberation theology makes a significant breakthrough in our understanding of right and wrong, it legitimizes the concept that sin is not just an act of individual moral failure, it can also be an act of organizational failure, e.g. not only can people sin but institutions, governments, and economic systems can also be sinful in their very existence and practice.
These points may seem obvious, but they represent a profound contradiction within the mainstay of Christian Conservativism off all stripes, which demands fealty to the rigid dictates of individuality, only individuals can sin and therefore only individuals have accountability.
This represents an existential threat to right wing Christianity, and as easily anticipated, the full court propaganda press goes into warp drive to head off any traction that may be had by such musings. These arguments are particularly troubling to American Christians in general, and Catholics in particular, as these types of viewpoints obliterate and contradict the central thesis of America’s religious consolidation with Capitalism. Indeed, the National Review published an article “The secret roots of liberation theology” which claims this was concocted by the Russian KGB. We just can’t have this gaining any momentum, so one should expect a flurry of these types of smear articles as the Pope’s encyclical becomes more widely distributed.
This does symbolize a renewed battle of ideologies chaired by strange bedfellows, now apparently led by a new champion, the Catholic Church
Is the Church struggling for relevancy? Is an activist posture forthcoming that activates 1 billion lumpen proletariat into the vanguard, through a coupling of class consciousness, ecological destruction, and limits to growth?
Nikki Manaj’s preposterous attire symbolizes the tongue and cheek rebuttal of a “Red Pope”, as a communist sympathizer who embodies in his recent encyclical, a call to “un-American” action theories, a Pope who overextends his position and segues into science, economics, and other topics far afield of his domain expertise.
After all, he calls for an end to endless growth, rampant consumerism, excessive consumption by the wealthy, and cessation of environmental destruction.
How dare he!
Everyone knows the American dream, that indefatigable strain of individuality, the boot strap mentality to step over every obstacle at any and all costs, that deepest reliance and valorization on the individual, this as anyone knows, is the very cornerstone of spirituality, after all God wants you to be strong and rich!
In the meantime, economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked. Many people will deny doing anything wrong because distractions constantly dull our consciousness of just how limited and finite our world really is. As a result, “whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule”.
A challenge to the free market ideology? Why, this is blasphemy. But we have seen similar observations in the previous exhortation, wherein the consumerist free markets were challenged for the first time with papal authority. This encyclical, however, goes much, much further.
To be sure, most of the controversy and commentary on ‘Laudato Si’, is focused on the destruction of the environment. Readers of this blog will find nothing new or interesting in these claims, as they are self evident, and although they are a strong and recurring theme of the encyclical, I find other elements much more interesting.
Perhaps the most powerful thrust of this Pope’s directive is the restating of Christian priorities from social to economic. The Christian right has seized on the culture wars of women’s reproductive rights, same sex marriage, women in the priesthood, etc. as not only central issues, but the very backbone of a ideological spectrum that extends to denial of racism and denial of climate change. These superficial cause celebres, distract and deflect attention away from critical issues and rely on principles of substitution to activate fundamentalist solidarity.
In contradiction to these movements, the current Papal encyclical as well as the previous exhortation resets the priorities to elevate inequality, climate change, and ecological destruction as a by-product of value production, as the key topics of concern.
This substantially deflates the Christian Right’s standing and values, and sets into motion a conflict and dialogue that ultimately may not end well.
These top level contradictions quickly devolve into further disagreement, especially in subjects such as property ownership.
We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man “dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1); to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14). Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23).
I’m guessing John Locke missed this part.
But the real issue, long since lost in Capital’s co-opting of biblical principles is the notion of an equity position for all inhabitants.
One of the more interesting comments in the encyclical, although not covered extensively, is the concept of a Jubilee, a long standing biblical reference to a resetting of the ownership economy approximately every 50 years.
……. Finally, after seven weeks of years, which is to say forty-nine years, the Jubilee was celebrated as a year of general forgiveness and “liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants” (cf. Lev 25:10). This law came about as an attempt to ensure balance and fairness in their relationships with others and with the land on which they lived and worked. At the same time, it was an acknowledgment that the gift of the earth with its fruits belongs to everyone. Those who tilled and kept the land were obliged to share its fruits, especially with the poor, with widows, orphans and foreigners in their midst: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after the harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner” (Lev 19:9-10).
Yet it would also be mistaken to view other living beings as mere objects subjected to arbitrary human domination. When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society. This vision of “might is right” has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all. Completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace……….
Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone. For believers, this becomes a question of fidelity to the Creator, since God created the world for everyone. Hence every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective Catechism of the Catholic Church, which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged. The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and “the first principle of the whole ethical and social order”. The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property. Saint John Paul II forcefully reaffirmed this teaching, stating that “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favoring anyone”. These are strong words. He noted that “a type of development which did not respect and promote human rights – personal and social, economic and political, including the rights of nations and of peoples – would not be really worthy of man”. He clearly explained that “the Church does indeed defend the legitimate right to private property, but she also teaches no less clearly that there is always a social mortgage on all private property, in order that goods may serve the general purpose that God gave them”.
Consequently, he maintained, “it is not in accord with God’s plan that this gift be used in such a way that its benefits favor only a few”. This calls into serious question the unjust habits of a part of humanity.
This would appear to be a pretty straightforward indictment of the rentier class, again with disruptive conclusions regarding property rights.
The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good
If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others. That is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” means when “twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive”.
Clearly there is a pattern emerging centering on strong critique of our socially accepted concept of property rights, linkage to ecology and use for the greater good, and the continuing acceleration of vast inequality.
With this linkage established, the encyclical moves into discussion of root cause responsibility, which is named generally as “consumerism” but when explored in more detail we see commentary specific to excessive consumption and overproduction.
Politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy. Today, in view of the common good, there is urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life.
Saving banks at any cost, making the public pay the price, foregoing a firm commitment to reviewing and reforming the entire system, only reaffirms the absolute power of a financial system, a power which has no future and will only give rise to new crises after a slow, costly and only apparent recovery. The financial crisis of 2007-08 provided an opportunity to develop a new economy, more attentive to ethical principles, and new ways of regulating speculative financial practices and virtual wealth. But the response to the crisis did not include rethinking the outdated criteria which continue to rule the world. Production is not always rational, and is usually tied to economic variables which assign to products a value that does not necessarily correspond to their real worth. This frequently leads to an overproduction of some commodities, with unnecessary impact on the environment and with negative results on regional economies.
In perhaps one of the most powerful passages in the encyclical, the endless cycle of consumerism, inequality, and environmental destruction is laid bare:
Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending. Compulsive consumerism is one example of how the techno-economic paradigm affects individuals. Romano Guardini had already foreseen this: “The gadgets and technics forced upon him by the patterns of machine production and of abstract planning mass man accepts quite simply; they are the forms of life itself. To either a greater or lesser degree mass man is convinced that his conformity is both reasonable and just”.
This paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power. Amid this confusion, postmodern humanity has not yet achieved a new self-awareness capable of offering guidance and direction, and this lack of identity is a source of anxiety. We have too many means and only a few insubstantial ends.
The current global situation engenders a feeling of instability and uncertainty, which in turn becomes “a seedbed for collective selfishness”. When people become self-centred and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume.
It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality. In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears. As these attitudes become more widespread, social norms are respected only to the extent that they do not clash with personal needs. So our concern cannot be limited merely to the threat of extreme weather events, but must also extend to the catastrophic consequences of social unrest. Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.
I believe the encyclical has touched on some critical founding principles in its pursuit of re-establishing relevance to the Catholic Church. First, considerable text has been devoted to the walking back, rehabilitating even, the concept of Dominion over Nature. Much of the previous definition had been exclusionary of any meaningful deification of Nature as noted earlier, and was ultimately co-opted by Capital to allow a profit driven land and resource grab with appalling veracity. Coupled with Evangelical and fundamentalist Christian support, this was cemented into American thinking and remains a formidable intellectual obstacle.
Will the encyclical succeed in resetting environmental priorities to a restorative, rather than profit driven cycle? Of course the answer is no, and even if it could, it is likely too late.
Considerable text has also been allocated to the discussion of the integration of science and technology into Church teachings. This represents a good step forward, although it took quite some time (400 years!) to come up with a way to reconcile science with the necessary mysticism of a religion. Rather than considering science as the enemy (with apologies to Galileo) the pope has instead embraced science to ultimately support a morality statement in mobilizing against climate destruction. I think this is a pretty clever way to take the position.
If I permit myself a bit of altruism, one might see in the encyclical a roadmap to a different world, a different place and a different outcome. Surely if this prescription were followed as suggested for 21 centuries we would have a better place? I think the answer to this is yes, but it requires a revisionist perspective, to overlook the 16 centuries of power dominance and various and sundry atrocities of the Church, the take-no-prisoners approach to leadership which contributed greatly to the world we have now.
But I suspect the greatest impact of the message is not directed to the 20% of the world participating in excessive consumption, who will likely never change of their own volition.
Perhaps it is meant for the 1 billion who are not. The 1 billion who will bear the brunt of the effects of climate change. What might they do with this information?
The dawn of the second day of the Easter Triduum came for me with a strange mission- stewardship of the Vigil Candle. As a 12 year old altar boy, I had been bestowed the symbolic responsibility of insuring the lighted Vigil candle remained that way during my shift.
The lighted paschal candle symbolizes the presence of the Holy Spirit, in that darkest of days between Crucifixion on the cross (Good Friday) and the Resurrection (Easter Sunday). As a lay person one might conjure this a period of instability, indeterminate, a body lying in state with no clear connection to either world, an ethereal space between the earthly bounds of sin and exploitation and the soul cleansing transition to afterlife.
The fragility of the flickering candle light represents that it can go either way.
In the pre-dawn hours I walked alone the familiar route from my house to the church. Alongside the church was the entrance to the priest’s chambers, down a long path bordered by Calla lilies and lush elephant ferns to the rear of the church. Inside chambers was a veritable forest of dark baroque woodwork, neatly organzied apothecaries, hanging vestments and the strong lingering odor of incense. There was a small closet with altar boy gowns, it was first come/first serve to find a usable size, and I was fortunate enough to find one that fit.
I was noticed by the poor sap with the earlier shift, he needed no encouragement to leave his post on the altar, shed his gown quickly and head for the door.
I took his place on the altar, kneeling for what promised to be a long three hours with my eye on the flickering candle.
For a 12 year old, spending the pre-dawn hours alone in a darkened church, lit only by flickering candles under the watchful eye of various saints and church luminaries, is not an assignment that one relishes. The mind wanders, reflecting first on memorized phrases from ritualized catechism, from other worldly repose the minutes and hours while away to more traditional boyhood daydreaming- anything to stave off the fear of impending doom.
Shocked from my reverie by a sharp jab, I turned to see an elderly woman poking me frantically. There was no speaking allowed on the altar, she was no doubt one of a small army of lay persons that brought flowers and attended daily early mass- apparently from lack of anything better to do. She gestured emphatically towards the vigil candle.
Mankind’s exothermic machine of industrial civilization recently blew past the 400ppm CO2 mile post, causing a few passengers to exclaim, “Homo sapiens have never existed at these levels of heat-trapping gases!” Hundreds and even thousands of years will pass before the full aftermath from our fossil fuel orgy plays out, but we’ll see plenty of nasty surprises in feedback loops and tipping points this century, perhaps most notably sea level rise. Another area of glaciers once thought to be stable has fallen to the human CO2 spike which is occurring 14,000 faster than natural processes and 10-200 times faster than the PETM extinction event. Every so often I feel the need to try to wrap my mind around these horrific statistics and re-examine our place in time as we continue whistling past the graveyard. Keeping in mind that we have yet to take our foot off the gas pedal of economic growth, I’ll try to make sense of what we are doing to the earth by looking back at paleoclimate records when such atmospheric conditions did exist:
– The last time carbon levels reached 400 ppm, and “mean global temperatures were substantially warmer for a sustained period,” was probably 2-3 million years ago, in the Mid-Pliocene era. – Sedimentary cores taken from a Siberian lake north of the Arctic Circle shows that mid-Pliocene atmospheric CO2 measured between 380 and 450 parts per million. Those same cores contain fossil pollens from five different kinds of pine trees as well as numerous other plants we don’t find in today’s Arctic. – Temperatures were 2-3 ˚C higher—about 4-6 ˚F—above pre-industrial levels. – Arctic temperatures were between 10-20 ˚C hotter. – Sea levels were, on average, between 50 and 82 feet higher. – A warmer Arctic saw the spread of forests and forest biology to the far reaches of the north. – Many species of both plants and animals existed several hundred kilometers north of where their nearest relatives exist today. – The Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Current experienced enhanced heat transport pushing warm water further to the north. Similar heating in the Pacific impacted the areas as far north as the Bering Sea. – Arctic ice was “ephemeral”, as in, not permanent, and melted in the warm season. – North Atlantic regions warmed considerably. – Australopithecus afarensis, an early hominid at the time, roamed East Africa and slept in trees, eating mostly fruit, seeds, roots, and insects with the occasional lizard and scavenged meat.
(sources: Motherboard, wfs.org, and yalescientific.org)
Until this prehistoric hominid changed its diet to high protein,
expanding its brain to enable complex tool and weapon-making,
it was easy prey for the saber-toothed tiger.
The prehistoric environment described above is not compatible with modern-day civilization and its billions of infrastructure and supply chain-dependent people. Billions will perish without the technological exoskeleton that houses, feeds, and nurtures them. Nearly all are under the spell that our money system, economy, and energy resources are somehow more vital to us than the environment upon which those manmade structures were built. What they don’t realize, or appreciate, is that nature’s ecosystems are what provide the foundation for any civilization if we want breathable air, potable water, arable land, and a planet hospitable to humans. We have gone a long way in undermining this foundation and now hold the dubious honor of being this planet’s first sentient beings to predict, document, and witness their own self-inflicted demise. This was the Holocene, as discussed here. Notice the red “temperature anomaly” spike at the very end of that era. Put in context with other geologic eras, it looks like this. See the difference? The Holocene was a very stable period compared to any other time in the deep past, but we wrecked it with our greenhouse gases. The climate system’s lag time prevents us from seeing the full effects just yet, but changes in the earth’s hydrologic cycle and weather patterns are already apparent. In response to such changes, trees are adjusting the speed at which they cycle water.
I peg the dawn of the Anthropocene at the mid 19th century when fossil fuel consumption began to take off, ramping up anthropogenic climate change:
We have a 10% chance that the earth will warm 6°C by 2100 according to scientists, but the fossil fuel industry is betting it’s a sure thing by planning its future business around magical, nonexistent technologies that would remove CO2 emissions. Notwithstanding the armchair technotopian dreams of a future world that includes driverless cars, zero-point energy, and asteroid mining, we are living at the peak of capitalist industrial civilization which produces a continual flood of products promising to improve and enhance our lives but which, in the end, only complicate them. We are trapped between mindless consumerism and the thoughtless destruction of the environment. Tim Garrett calls our dilemma a double bind. The only thing that will save us from a deadly warming of the planet is the very thing that will destroy most of us if it happens —the complete crash of the global economy and its CO2 emitting process of “building wealth.” Homo economicus is too busy converting his rich environment into monetary tokens to think about the consequences of what he is doing or perceive the impending crash of the earth’s biosphere that will take care of the human overshoot problem and all the transient material wealth that has been covetously accumulated and guarded. Rising oceans, floods, fire, drought, and various superstorms from a damaged biosphere will take it all back and destroy it. For a species that has created a throw-away society, such an end is fitting. With every loss we inflict upon biodiversity, extinction creeps ever closer toward us. The consequences of ignoring the hard laws of physics, chemistry, and biology will be dire:
Countries once thought of as having relatively stable and developing economies like Brazil are now openly contemplating the use of their military in order to keep the megacity São Paulo from spiraling out of control in the face of severe climate change-driven droughts. And in the so-called First World country of America, president Obama’s science adviser is warning that “climate change could overwhelm California,” a state that grows a large percentage of what the country eats:
…The huge inertia built into the energy system — a $25 trillion worldwide investment in a mainly fossil-fuel infrastructure — is colliding with enormous momentum in the climate, which responds slowly to the buildup in greenhouse gases. The world is not even yet fully experiencing the results of emissions put into the atmosphere years ago, he said. It will take decades to turn both systems around.
“If we stopped emitting today, the temperature would still coast up for decades to come,” Holdren said.
He recalled sitting on a presidential science advisory panel during the Clinton administration.
“Quite a lot of folks were saying the impacts of climate change are uncertain and far away, the costs of dealing with it are large and close — therefore, we should wait and see what happens,” Holdren said.
“Well, like it or not, that’s pretty much what we did.”…
The mental traps and psychological defense mechanisms employed by the naked ape makes him a basket case of contradictions and ironies, simply adding more insurmountable obstacles to the insoluble problem of capitalist industrial civilization. That’s why we love dystopian operas that reflect our own twisted culture and capitalist society.
A sobering video…
Extreme weather events are rapidly increasing. Right now we are in the 6-sigma risk zone of climate change.