17 December 2009

The Archdruid makes sense on climate change and much else

With the world's attention on Copenhagen, we illuminate our own views by attending to those that resonate.

Whether or not the current round of climate instability is entirely the product of anthropogenic CO2 emissions is actually not that important, because it’s even more stupid to dump greenhouse gases into a naturally unstable climate system than it would be to dump them into a stable one. Over the long run, the only level of carbon pollution that is actually sustainable is zero net emissions, and getting there any time soon would require something not far from the dismantling of industrial society and its replacement with something much less affluent. Now of course we would have to do this anyway, since the world’s fossil fuel supplies are depleting fast enough that production limits will begin to bite hard in the years and decades ahead, but this simply sharpens the point at issue.

Even if it turns out to be possible to power something like an industrial society on renewable resources, the huge energy, labor, and materials costs needed to develop renewable energy and replace most of the infrastructure of today’s society with new systems geared to new energy sources will have to be paid out of existing supplies; thus everything else would have to be cut to the bone, or beyond. Exactly how big the price tag would be is anybody’s guess just now, but it’s probably not far from the mark to suggest that the population of the industrial world would have to accept a Third World standard of living, and the population of the Third World would have to give up aspirations for a better life for the foreseeable future, for such a gargantuan project to have any chance of working.

I encourage those who think this latter is a politically viable option to try to convince their spouses and friends to take such steps voluntarily. Any politician rash enough to propose such a project would be well advised to kiss his or her next election goodbye. Any president who even took a step in that direction – well, I doubt many people have forgotten what happened to Jimmy Carter. For that matter, I’m sure there must be climate change zealots who have given up their McMansions, sold their cars, and now live in one-room apartments in rat-infested tenements with six other activists so all their spare money can go to building a renewable economy, but I don’t happen to know any who have done so, while I long ago lost track of the number of global warming bumper stickers I’ve seen on the rear ends of SUVs.

Nobody, but nobody, is willing to deal with the harsh reality of what a carbon-neutral society would have to be like. This is what makes the blame game so popular, and it also provides the impetus behind meaningless gestures of the sort that are on the table at Copenhagen. It’s a common piece of rhetoric these days to say that “failure is not an option,” but this sort of feckless thoughtstopper misses the point as totally as any human utterance possibly could. Failure is always an option; when trying to prevent it will lead to highly unpleasant personal consequences, without actually having the least chance of preventing it, a strong case can be made that the most viable option for anyone in a leadership position is to enjoy the party while it lasts, and hope you can duck the blame when it all comes crashing down.

Those who have their doubts about anthropogenic climate change can apply the identical logic to the industrial world’s sustained nonresponse to the peaking of world oil production, or to any of half a dozen other global crises that result from the collision between an economy geared to infinite growth and the relentless limits of a finite planet. In each case, the immediate costs of doing something about the issue are so high, and so unendurable, that very few people in positions of influence are willing to stick their necks out, and those who do so can count on being shortened by a head by others who are more than willing to cash in on their folly.

There’s another way to understand the paradox that makes failure the only viable option, but it will involve a glance backwards over the history of the sustainability movement and the theoretical structure – systems theory – that once undergirded it. That glance, and its implications, will occupy the second part of this series.


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