Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Our contemporary world is host to two coexisting but fundamentally different—and, in at least one crucial respect, contradictory—realities. One of these might be termed Political Reality, though it extends far beyond formal politics and pervades conventional economic thinking. It is the bounded universe of what is acceptable in public economic-social-political discourse. The other is Physical Reality: i.e., what exists in terms of energy and materials, and what is possible given the laws of thermodynamics.
For decades these two realities have developed along separate lines. They overlap from time to time: politicians and economists use data tied to measurable physical parameters, while physical scientists often frame their research and findings in socially meaningful ways. But in intent and effect, they diverge to an ever-greater extent.
The issue at which they differ to the point of outright contradiction is economic growth. And climate change forces the question.
* * *
The voice of political reality tells us that economic growth is necessary. We need it for job creation; we need it to enable poor people to become wealthier, to maintain technological progress, to provide returns on investments and to increase tax revenues so as to make essential government services available. Growth is even required to address environmental problems: after all, we need ever more money to fund disaster relief and renewable energy transition efforts. Only by growing the economy now can we become wealthy enough to afford to fix the problems created by past growth. Meanwhile population growth must continue because it is an essential component of GDP growth.
Within the realm of political reality, anybody who questions the importance of growth is not to be taken seriously. Such a person is obviously not a humanitarian, nor a responsible participant in mainstream political and economic discussions.
It wasn’t always this way: as I’ve explained in my book The End of Growth, and in a brief essay on the history of consumerism, economies tended to grow slowly or not at all prior to the fossil-fueled industrial revolution. Cheap, concentrated energy enabled industrial expansion and overproduction, which in turn laid the groundwork for consumerism, globalization and financialization. Economies and governments came to expect high rates of growth, and to rely on them to fulfill increasingly extravagant promises.
The result has been—I’m choosing my words carefully—the gradual accretion of a set of widely shared assumptions that constitute a bounded ideational realm with rigidly consistent internal rules. Deviate from these rules, and there are predictable consequences. When any public person (writer, economist, scientist, whatever) demonstrates a disconnection from political reality by questioning the desirability or possibility of continued growth, the minders of the mainstream media turn their attention elsewhere.
How different physical reality is. Simple arithmetic shows that growth in population and consumption cannot continue indefinitely. In his book The No-Growth Imperative, Gabor Zovanyi offers an illustration: “If our species had started with just two people at the time of the earliest agricultural practices some 10,000 years ago, and increased by 1 percent per year, today humanity would be a solid ball of flesh many thousand light years in diameter, and expanding with a radial velocity that, neglecting relativity, would be many times faster than the speed of light.” Today’s global population growth rate of 1.1 percent per year is obviously unsustainable over any significant time frame. Growth in consumption levels faces similar practical limits.
Of course, long before we become a solid ball of flesh expanding at light speed while consuming galaxies of raw materials at a gulp, we will arrive at a point where the costs of further growth outweigh any real benefits. Those costs are likely to make themselves known in the forms of rising commodities prices, pollution dilemmas, biodiversity loss, crashing economies, declining real standards of living and rising levels of conflict as nations and social factions fight over scraps.
Plenty of intelligent people whose first allegiance is to physical reality believe we are near or at that point now.
* * *
Some on both sides of the reality divide offer to compromise. If you’re an environmentalist and want to be taken seriously by politicians and economists, you propose ways to expand the economy with more environmentally responsible practices under the banner of “green growth.” If you’re an economist, politician, government bureaucrat or business executive and you want to be taken seriously by environmentalists, you propose ways to solve environmental problems without sacrificing growth, such as by creating limited pollution regulations, promoting “green” products or subsidizing renewable energy. Such projects and proposals help address some of the metastasizing crises resulting from humanity’s still-expanding population and rates of consumption, but so far they haven’t succeeded in changing worrisome consequence trends (warming climate, declining ore grades, depleting fossil fuels, disappearing biodiversity) or resolving the fundamental contradiction between the two realities.
Meanwhile many intellectuals mired in political realism reinforce the divide by arguing that physical limits are unimportant or nonexistent due to the promise of future (theoretical) technologies, resource substitution, efficiency, “dematerialization” or “ephemeralization.” The late economist Julian Simon made a career of this, and his most famous follower, Bjørn Lomborg, proudly maintains the tradition. Physical realists refute such arguments as quickly as they are made, but that news doesn’t travel far in the world of political realism.
And so the disconnect continues and worsens.
Climate change has the potential to force the issue. To be sure, political realists work overtime to assure one and all that the world can reduce carbon emissions at a minimal cost, or even at a profit. (A recent example: The IPCC has released a report saying that the world can manage the climate crisis at a cost of “an annualized reduction of consumption growth by 0.04 to 0.14 … percentage points over the century.”) But they do this by deliberately underestimating costs, ignoring differences in energy quality and overestimating the potential of alternatives to replace oil in the crucial transport and agriculture sectors. (The IPCC report just referenced does all these things.)
Climatologist Kevin Anderson of University of East Anglia’s Tyndall Centre concludes that, if we are to reduce carbon emissions as significantly and as quickly as needed, the economy will have to contract. Anderson estimates that industrial nations must cut emissions by 10 percent per year to avert catastrophe, and figures that such rapid reduction would be, in his words, “incompatible with economic growth.” Significantly, George Monbiot—a prominent voice in the world of climate change journalism—has adopted essentially the same view.
Given the dire planetary outcomes now looming, policy makers are increasingly committing themselves to doing something serious about climate change. If they do, the irresistible force and the immovable object will meet head-on. If they don’t, it will be because world leaders value political realism more highly than physical survival.
* * *
How to reconcile these two realities? This is one of the central problems of our time—and one of the least discussed.
Clearly, we’ve got to get past predictable cynical responses, with physical realists shouting “You’re driving us toward planetary catastrophe!” while political realists respond with, “You want to take us back to the Dark Ages!” That standoff accomplishes little.
Does this mean we should split the difference? In a word, No. In the contest between physical and political realities, it is political reality that must yield. Attempts to meet somewhere in the middle amount simply to reducing delusional thinking from absurd, world-annihilating levels to pathetic, self-immobilizing levels.
Our only hope of minimizing human suffering and wholesale ecosystem mayhem this century lies in coming to grips with the very limits that political realists spend their time seeking to hide and ignore. Their successful efforts at managing the public’s perceptions and beliefs have imperiled everything worth caring about. Soon the misled mass of humanity will be grappling with consequences of attitudes and actions that were insane from the get-go, yet cheered, rationalized and normalized by nearly every respected public figure. Delusional expectations are about to crash upon the shoals of hard truth.
As we know from history, whole societies can descend into systemically delusional thinking. In the U.S., with belief in climate change having become a matter of political affiliation, and with business pages of newspapers hailing each shred of ersatz evidence of economic “recovery” (i.e., return to GDP growth), we appear already to be far along that path.
Essayist John Michael Greer argues that the lunacy of managerial elites is a symptom invariably seen when civilizations approach collapse; he believes our society is in the early stages of one of history’s periodic, predictable and inevitable phases of decline, and there’s essentially nothing we can do to stop the process.
I think he’s right, in that economic contraction is now inevitable. This is true whether or not governments and central banks are able to blow yet another bubble (perhaps one even beyond the current stock market / real estate / fracking bubble that’s set to burst the moment interest rates increase). What really matters is how contraction proceeds.
There are good arguments to be made that it’s too late to change population-consumption-pollution trends now converging, and that the best course of action for those of us awake and aware of physical reality is to adapt intelligently to the phases of collapse as they occur, while building resilience in our lives and communities so as to weather coming storms (literal and metaphorical) as successfully as possible. An equally good case holds that we should continue to do everything we can to counter those trends, so that whatever future unfolds is more survivable, and so that less damage is done to the ecological web on whose integrity the lives of future generations will depend. In my opinion, both are correct.
What’s needed is a contraction pathway that minimizes human suffering, averts the worst environmental impacts and yields the best ultimate outcome of sustainable and thriving human cultures situated in functioning, restabilizing ecosystems.
* * *
Put off, for the moment, objections that “it’s too late” or “we don’t have the capacity.” What would be a strategy for reorienting society toward physical reality without incurring a collective psychological breakdown, so that the optimal contraction pathway can be realized?
At this late date, the following recommendations may constitute merely a speculative wish list. But just in case there is someone awake to physical reality at the Gates Foundation (which owns the only private philanthropic pile of money big enough to accomplish much of this), here are some ideas that could help avert the worst of the worst.
Start by putting effort into building a stronger consensus for action among those in the “physical reality” camp. Then pursue strategic alliances. There is a spectrum among those wedded to political reality, with denial of climate change and biological evolution at one end. Open a wider dialogue with those at the more physically realistic end of that spectrum, calmly insisting on the primacy of limits to growth while seeking common ground. Then help these reasonable folks work from the inside to transform political reality until it more closely resembles physical reality.
Dedicate major funding to a public education program in critical thinking. An Inconvenient Truth and Cosmos were helpful first volleys, but what is needed is something on a far larger scale; maintained over several years; encompassing classroom materials as well as television, YouTube and social media; and addressing the population-consumption growth dilemma as well as numeracy, ecological literacy and climate change.
Fund major culturally informed and targeted family planning campaigns throughout the world, with a special emphasis on nations with high birth rates.
There are already several movements aiding individuals and communities to adapt to a post-growth, post-carbon economic regime: localism, Transition Towns, the organics movement, Slow Food and Money, the voluntary simplicity movement and more. These need far greater support.
Such movements tend to soft-peddle critiques of our society’s overarching systemic problem—the growth imperative built into our financial system, our economic system and (some would argue) even our monetary system—simply because the issue is too big for local organizations to effectively address. The emerging discourse on alternative economics, including the economics of happiness and alternative economic indicators as well as the degrowth and post-growth movements, begin to fill that gap. This discourse also needs major support and elaboration, with the goal of utterly transforming both the discipline of economics (e.g., economics textbooks and classes must begin teaching ecological, steady-state economics) and the economy itself.
At the same time, think tanks should be funded to craft and promote policies that help households and institutions adapt to a contracting economy. These might include, for example, quota rationing of energy and informal training in home-scale arts of production and repair as well as supporting local distributed renewable energy; investment in public transit, electrified transportation and nonmotorized transportation; import substitution; and relocalization of appropriate industries.
Within a contracting economy, income and wealth inequality becomes a critical political and social issue. Unless policies dictate otherwise, those with prior economic advantage tend to aggressively aggregate an ever-larger share of overall societal wealth and income, while those at the bottom of the heap descend into absolute misery. Solutions would begin with taxing financial transactions, inherited wealth, high incomes and luxury goods, with the revenues spent on building renewable energy infrastructure, redesigning food and transport systems to dramatically reduce oil dependence and helping poor folk adapt and get by. These policies must be promoted on a national and global scale with major funding and the enlisted expertise of messaging professionals.
Now for those objections—“It’s too late,” “We haven’t the capacity.” They are persuasive. The fulfillment of the above wish list (it could be lengthened considerably) is indeed a far longshot. But even minor progress along any of these lines could help change the trajectory of collapse and our chances for a desirable outcome.
If the problem of political realists is self-delusion, the predicament of many physical realists is a sense of defeat and dread. So for the sake of the latter I will conclude with a little pep talk (directed as much to myself as to readers). Too much is at stake to retire in cynical self-assurance that we are right, they are wrong; we are weak, they are strong. Yes, horrible consequences from past growth are inevitable; today’s physical reality is a given. However, tomorrow’s reality is still, at least to some degree, up to us.
A pygmy rabbit rescued from a breeding site in Beezley Hills, Washington, eats owl clover in its new enclosure. Kourtney Stonehouse, WDFW
- 7 Devastating Photos of Wildfires in California, Oregon and ... ›
- California Wildfires Destroy Condor Sanctuary, at Least 4 Birds Still ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
- Climate Activists Prepare for November Election - EcoWatch ›
- The Next Election Is About the Next 10,000 Years - EcoWatch ›
- Latino Voters Worried About Climate Change Could Swing 2020 ... ›
- Climate Crisis Could Change Permafrost Soil Microbes, With ... ›
- Zombie Fires Could Be Awakening in the Arctic - EcoWatch ›
- The Arctic Is on Fire and Warming Twice as Fast as the Rest of the ... ›
By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
Scientists are on the brink of scaling up an enzyme that devours plastic. In the latest breakthrough, the enzyme degraded plastic bottles six times faster than previous research achieved, as The Guardian reported.
- Mutant Enzyme Recycles Plastic in Hours, Could Revolutionize ... ›
- Scientists Find Bacteria That Eats Plastic - EcoWatch ›
- Plastics: The History of an Ecological Crisis - EcoWatch ›
- Scientists Accidentally Develop 'Mutant' Enzyme That Eats Plastic ... ›