By Frank Rotering | October 24, 2020
NOTE: I am currently writing a book with the working title, Ecological Survival, which is scheduled for completion in mid-2021. Because of the urgency of the ecological crisis, and because the book offers a carefully considered survival strategy, I am posting the introductory chapter below. This outlines my environmental, economic, and political analysis before drawing broad strategic conclusions. The rest of the book will cover these topics in more depth and detail.
The broad truth about the ecological crisis is straightforward: humankind has heedlessly followed its biological impulses by expanding its economy beyond the Earth's natural limits, and now faces ecological collapse. The rational response to this overshoot condition is also apparent: immediately address short-term threats such as the Arctic meltdown, remove unsafe greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, and - to the degree possible - restore the planet's lands, oceans, and ice to their pre-overshoot conditions. In this introduction I expand on these assertions to give the reader an overview of my analysis and strategy. I begin with three core ideas.
Ecological overshoot occurred around 1950 and was evident to informed minds by 1970. The environmentally concerned have therefore had fifty years to observe both the unfolding crisis and the human response. The attentive among them will have learned the following lessons:
- The Earth, as a habitat for human civilization, is acutely sensitive to environmental disturbances. The clearest example is the atmosphere's concentration of CO2 - the main greenhouse gas (GHG). This has increased from its pre-Industrial level of 280 parts per million (ppm) to today's 415 ppm. Given the environment's rapid decline as this number rose, it appears that any increase greater than 10% is disastrous for both humankind and non-human species. The upper limit for a safe atmosphere is therefore around 310 ppm - a level last seen in the 1940s.
- The powerful people who control the global economy will not depart from the expansionary path, no matter how catastrophic the crisis becomes. Despite half a century of escalating disasters and today's disturbing signs of ecological collapse, no deviation from the growth trajectory is being considered by those in power. There is no longer any doubt that, without revolutionary intervention, business as usual will continue until the environment is effectively destroyed.
- As a biological species, humankind is strongly motivated to serve its material interests; its natural tendency is therefore to support both economic expansion and the social forces that drive it. Concerned minds frequently deny or downplay biological human nature because its acceptance could undermine beneficial social reforms. Solving the ecological crisis, however, will require far more than reforms - it will entail the wholesale reorientation of our species, including the drastic reduction of our consumption and population levels. In this context, ignoring our inherent tendencies is a fatal mistake.
In brief: Rapid ecological degradation over the past fifty years has revealed that the conditions for civilized human life are restricted to a small environmental window. This window is rapidly closing, but those in power refuse to alter their expansionary course. As a biological and thus self-interested species we have largely acquiesced in this ecocidal passivity.
These three lessons underpin my analysis of the ecological crisis and my proposed strategy for civilized human survival. To succinctly describe these I will answer four questions: What is the nature of the crisis? What is the rational response? Why has this response not been implemented? And most importantly: What is the best available strategy to finally get it done?
What is the nature of the ecological crisis?
Several centuries ago the growth-dependent capitalist system replaced the stable feudal economy in Europe. Given its lust for growth and its ruthless treatment of both people and nature, the new system soon dominated the globe.
A key reason for capitalism's expansionary success was its assumption that the natural world is limitless. That is, it assumed that both the resources it uses as inputs, and the environment's capacity to absorb its wastes, are infinite. As we now know (see lesson #1), this is categorically false. The widespread violation of environmental limits was therefore inevitable. As noted above, these violations began around 1950 and are collectively called ecological overshoot in this book. Although it has been ignored by mainstream sources, this was the most significant event in human history.
As expansion continued and the violation of natural limits deepened, various Earth systems started breaking down, thereby producing an ecological crisis. Serious problems were first detected in the climate system because the atmosphere is far less dense than the oceans and land, making it far more sensitive to the global warming that results from rising GHG concentrations. Because this warming noticeably altered the world's climates, these problems were referred to as "climate change".
This term, however, is highly misleading. One reason is that climate is only the first of several Earth systems to be impacted by global warming. On the land, extensive damage is caused by droughts, fires, and floods. In the oceans, waters warm and their oxygen levels drop, both of which damage marine species. Perhaps most significantly, polar and glacier ice rapidly melts, thereby raising sea levels, and permafrost extensively thaws, releasing further GHGs. "Climate change" is also misleading because excess CO2 causes ocean acidification through a chemical effect that has nothing to do with either global warming or changing climates.
For these reasons, this book refers to the harmful effects of unsafe GHG concentrations as the "GHG crisis". "Climate change" is used as well, but in reference to its original definition: a prolonged change in the mean and variability of key weather components.
Besides the GHG crisis, the ecological crisis includes various non-GHG impacts. The most significant of these is habitat destruction from industrial farming, which decimates insect populations and reduces biodiversity through extinctions. Other impacts include the over-exploitation of renewable resources (forests, fish, etc.), soil depletion, destructive mining operations, microplastics in the oceans, toxins in fresh water, and noxious pollution in the air.
A critical danger posed by the ecological crisis, but particularly the GHG crisis, is the existence of tipping points and points of no return (PONRs). A tipping point is reached when environmental damage increases sharply due to positive feedbacks or other factors. At this stage human agency still exists and ecosystem collapse can be prevented with an adequate response. A PONR is reached when the damage is so great that human agency no longer suffices to prevent collapse. Because scientists are unable to specify the timing of either tipping points or PONRs, a highly precautionary posture is adopted in the rational response outlined below.
To recap: Over the past few centuries humankind has over-expanded its economy, causing ecological overshoot around 1950. The resulting ecological crisis comprises the GHG crisis, which is an immediate existential threat due to tipping points and PONRs, and non-GHG impacts, which are serious longer-term threats. The term "climate change" is misleading because unsafe GHG concentrations also harm the world's lands, oceans, and ice. This book therefore uses "GHG crisis" instead.
What is humankind's rational response?
Assume that we, the environmentally concerned, have the capacity to implement any changes we like to solve the ecological crisis. What would we do?
We would first specify a rational goal. The standard formulation is that humankind must "avoid the worst consequences" of the GHG crisis and other impacts. However, "worst" is never defined, so any relative improvement qualifies. For example, if we assume that the worst consequence of the GHG crisis is the complete destruction of life on Earth, then saving a few species will avoid this and thus satisfy the goal.
Because of this deceptive vagueness, I have adopted the following goal instead: we must minimize the environmental damage we're currently doing, and repair the damage we've already done. This means that the rational response to the ecological crisis is the set of measures that achieves this two-sided goal for both the GHG crisis and non-GHG impacts.
Let me first address the GHG crisis. Because this calamity is the result of unsafe GHG concentrations, its solution is to reduce these to safe levels as soon as possible. Recall that for CO2 this is roughly 310 ppm as compared to today's 415 ppm. What measures are required to meet this momentous challenge?
The first is to minimize our ongoing damage by rapidly reducing emissions. Although concentrations will continue to rise until emissions reach net-zero, lowering them will make the problem more manageable. How can such reductions be achieved? By aggressively targeting the three factors that underlie any environmental impact: consumption levels, population levels, and efficiencies. Reducing the first two will eliminate some of the economic activities that produce emissions, and improving efficiencies will reduce emissions for the economic activities that remain. A sharp reduction in rich-world consumption is particularly important because its impact reduction will be both immediate and massive.
The second GHG measure is to repair our past damage by extracting unsafe concentrations from the atmosphere through GHG removal, or GGR. This is a broad category that includes both natural methods (planting trees, improved land management, enhanced weathering, etc.) and various technical methods to extract GHGs directly from the air. Unfortunately many of these methods are underdeveloped because GGR has long been downplayed due to the fixation on emission reductions. Their rapid, large-scale development is therefore urgently required.
The third GHG measure is to implement solar radiation management, or SRM. This refers to a variety of techniques for reducing the solar energy heating the Earth. The aim here is not to solve the crisis, but to buy our species the time it needs to implement the above two steps. Buying time is necessary because the extraction of unsafe GHG will likely take many decades to complete. Given the proximity of tipping points and PONRs, we would otherwise be overwhelmed by runaway warming and collapsing ecosystems during the extraction period. Although SRM is not a solution to the GHG crisis, it is an essential stopgap measure if humankind is to effectively address it.
What about the non-GHG impacts, such as habitat destruction? Luckily, our current damage in these areas is moderated by the above measures for emission reductions. Recall that these include lower consumption and population levels, which will reduce human impacts on the oceans, lands, and ice as well as the atmosphere. Efficiency improvements, however, must be extended to the non-GHG world. Examples include lower land requirements for food production and reduced packaging for the transportation and sale of goods.
The last component of the rational response is to repair our past non-GHG damage. This will require extensive ecological restoration: the abandonment of industrial farming, forestry, and fishing, the imposition of tight restrictions on mining, the removal of plastics and other wastes from sensitive areas, and the Earth's extensive rewilding. A reasonable aim for the latter is to restore the planet to its pre-overshoot condition - that is, the world of the 1940s or earlier.
To summarize: The correct goal for the ecological crisis is to minimize our current impact and repair our past damage for both its GHG and non-GHG components. The GHG aim is to reach safe concentrations as soon as possible. This can be achieved by aggressively reducing emissions and implementing GGR while protecting ourselves with SRM. Non-GHG impacts will in addition require improved non-GHG efficiencies, the effective treatment of dangerous wastes, and the Earth's ecological restoration to pre-overshoot conditions.
Why has this response not been implemented?
From the scientific perspective the rational response is clear and incontrovertible. Thus, if humankind were guided by objective science, we would have been implemented it decades ago. This means that our species is motivated by other factors as well. In the environmental context, the most important of these are material interests and the social control imposed by powerful forces. I begin with material interests.
As noted in lesson #3, human beings are biological creatures. This means we are naturally inclined to satisfy our biological impulses through high levels of consumption and procreation. Unfortunately the rational response demands precisely the opposite in both cases. In the rich countries we must sharply reduce our consumption, and in the poor countries we must restrict our consumption increases to what the planet can support. Humane population decreases in all countries would greatly facilitate these tasks.
Given the contradiction between our expansionary impulses and the contractionary requirements of the rational response, the latter is universally resisted. Further, because the contradiction is rooted in biology, it is impossible to escape. This means that, in developing a survival strategy, these interests must somehow be circumvented. This topic is addressed in my answer to the last question below.
The term "social control" is unfamiliar in conventional discourse because it refers to a deep political reality that is rarely acknowledged. One of this book's core claims is that the ecological crisis has made this avoidance existentially dangerous. Unless the environmentally concerned courageously expose and candidly address this concealed aspect of our societies, the rational response will remain permanently beyond reach.
The essence of deep politics is this: the capitalist societies that dominate the global economy are ruled not by the people through their governments, but by the capitalist ruling class through its state. The term "ruling class" refers to the relatively small, largely hereditary group that politically represents the interests of the corporate world. These are the people who hold true political power with military support, and who - as noted in lesson #2 - refuse to deviate from the expansionary path despite the escalating crisis. The term "state" refers to the organizations and institutions, including the police, judicial system, military, etc., that regulate social functioning and manage the populace. This management, which aligns the populace's thoughts and actions with ruling-class interests, is called "social control".
Social control has long been used to ensure that the rational response was not pursued. Most egregiously, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988 to acknowledge people's growing climate concerns, but to then steer them away from any solutions that threaten capitalism or growth. Today, a prominent climate scientist like Johan Rockström can tell us in one breath that the GHG crisis is "a planetary emergency", and in the next that concentrations can continue rising for several more decades. The fact that this is blatantly contradictory is irrelevant. Through social control we have been conditioned to accept even the most ludicrous assertions if the source is socially respectable - and respectability is reserved for those who consistently support economic expansion and rich-world lifestyles. Rockström, like most climate scientists, shamefully qualifies.
To recap: The rational response to the ecological crisis is scientifically transparent, but threatens both material interests and capitalist growth. Because material interests have a biological basis, ways must be found to circumvent them. The capitalist ruling class and state use social control to ensure that the populace remains passive in the face of growth-driven collapse. One of its key instruments is the IPCC, which absorbs the public's concerns in order to divert them into growth-friendly channels. With few exceptions, climate scientists are complicit in this grotesque deception.
What is the best available strategy?
The word "strategy" refers to a workable plan for implementing the rational response. By "workable" I mean that the realities of the social world - capitalism, political power, material interests, etc. - are fully considered. Unfortunately the options for such a plan are severely restricted because time is short and support for the expansionary status quo remains strong. My proposal, therefore, is for the best available strategy at this time. Although its probability of success is presumably low, in my view it offers the best chance we currently have.
To establish this strategy we must first address material interests from the strategic perspective. Given that these interests are biologically inescapable, how can they be evaded so as to give the rational response a fighting chance? I suggest that there are at least four motivations that are not materially driven and could therefore serve this purpose. These are strong emotions (for example the anger of the young and the shame of the older), personal ethics, professional codes of conduct, and military duty. These and perhaps other non-material motivations must be fully exploited to overcome our inborn expansionary drives.
The next critical issue is political power. How can the deeply entrenched capitalist ruling class be removed from power and replaced with a sustainable alternative? Over the years I have considered several possibilities here, including revolution from below and a ruling-class split, but at this late stage only military intervention seems feasible. It is therefore fortunate that one of the motivations identified above is military duty - specifically, the military's professional responsibility to safeguard the people from existential threats. Historically these have been restricted to foreign invasions and natural disasters, but human-induced collapse now falls into the same category.
Our main strategic assets for solving the crisis are thus humankind's non-material motivations and the military's responsibility to safeguard the people. On this basis I propose a youth-military strategy for ecological survival. This seeks to direct the surging anger of the young and their concerned parents, augmented by the ethical concerns of others, to transferring the military's allegiance from the capitalist class to the people it ultimately serves. Should this shift be successful, the military will either replace the capitalist class directly, or support a sustainable civilian group that is prepared to assume power. In the former case power would be returned to civilian hands as soon as possible. In either case the rational response to the ecological crisis would be immediately implemented.
It is important to understand that the proposed military intervention is not a coup. A military coup replaces an uncooperative government for the benefit of the ruling class. It thus maintains the existing power structure. The purpose of military intervention, by contrast, is to replace the ruling class for the benefit of the people. It thus transforms the existing power structure and fulfills a core requirement for ecological survival: revolutionary change.
To summarize this introduction: Over the past fifty years humankind has learned three crucial lessons: the Earth is acutely sensitive to environmental impacts, the capitalist ruling class will persist in its economic expansion despite ecological collapse, and material interests lead the populace to embrace both expansion and the social forces that drive it. The rational response to the resulting ecological crisis is scientifically evident, but can be implemented only through revolutionary change. To achieve this we must exploit humankind's non-material motivations to shift military allegiance from the ruling class to the people. The military, or a suitable sustainable group, must then seize power and quickly implement the rational response outlined above.
I conclude by pointing out that, concurrent with the required environmental measures, the new rulers must rapidly shift the global economy from expansion to contraction under the guidance of a sustainable economic theory. This is a major topic that is discussed at length in the main text.