If you’ve been a sentient being for the last few months, you’ve probably been watching some of the most curious weather events happening throughout the world.
Of particular concern for many scientists has been the Arctic sea ices melt, which dropped to its lowest level on record last summer. In the first few months of this year, large cracks were witnessed in the sea ice, indicating a great possibility that it has entered a death spiral and will disappear completely in the summer months within the next two years.
The rapid melt (and eventual disappearance) of the ice is having drastic affects on the jet stream in the northern hemisphere, creating powerful storms and extreme weather events, largely outside the comprehension of many scientists.
Jeff Masters, meteorology director at the private service Weather Underground states: “I’ve been doing meteorology for 30 years and the jet stream the last three yeas has done stuff I’ve never seen. […] The fact that the jet stream is unusual could be an indicator of something. I’m not saying we know what it is.”
For example, in May there were wildfires caused by excessive heat in California while at the same time there was more than a foot of snow in Minnesota. Spring in Colorado started with early wildfires and was subsequently followed by massive flooding. Massive floods have been devastating much of the northern hemisphere this spring, including Canada, the United States, Europe, India, and Russia.
Last week, Alaska saw its hottest days on record where the town of McGrath, Alaska hit 94 F degrees while just a few weeks earlier the local temperature was 15 F degrees. There have also been extreme heat waves throughout the southwest United States, some temperatures above 130 F degrees, also resulting in wildfires that spread to more than 6,000 acres in two days and killed 19 firefighters in Arizona.
Today, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is at 400 ppm – a level not seen on this planet since the Pliocene epoch, nearly 3 to 5 million years ago when the average global temperature of the planet was 2-3 C degrees warmer than today. The International Energy Agency has recently warned that the planet is on track for 3.6 to 5.3 C degrees warming.
This is catastrophic – most scientists have recognized any significant rise above 1 C will usher in irreversible changes that will threaten nearly all biological life on this planet.
Carbon dioxide has an approximate thirty-year time lag between its release into the atmosphere and its corresponding affect on average global temperature. Even if we stop all emissions today – keeping it at 400 ppm – we still have nearly thirty years of warming and climatic changes to undergo.
And right now, nothing that we are currently observing matches up with any of the models that we have – a stark acknowledgment that this historical moment we find ourselves in exists largely beyond our ability to comprehend it let alone predict its movement.
We are in uncharted territory – we are facing challenges never before experienced in the history of the human species. This presents a grave problem: if the best science we have today cannot accurately offer any model predictions for the path that we are currently on, how can we effectively plan for the future?
The honest truth: we can’t. We cannot effectively plan for a future that is beyond all known human experience.
The best that we can do now is stop exacerbating the problem – stop contributing to the rapidly accelerating decline and destruction of the Earth’s biosphere and ecosystems.
Quite literally: we have to completely dismantle the industrial economy, we have to do it soon, and really, we should have done it yesterday.
But even still, grinding industrial civilization to a complete halt today is only guaranteed to mitigate the pace at which we’re running – it is not yet clear that it will ultimately alter our direction. We have, at minimum, thirty more years of incomprehensible climate disruptions and changes to undergo no matter what happens today or tomorrow. Our only chance to still have a thriving and living planet following the coming decades is by making a complete, radical and rapid shift from the industrial economy.
The logic of industrial civilization and capitalism is immediacy – grow as quickly as possible, generate maximum profits in the shortest time, and deal with consequences and crises later (if at all). Long-term planning and strategizing is antithetical to, and bears no consequence on, the drive for capital accumulation, expansion, and domination.
This process, within the last 30-40 years alone, has resulted in such an expansive project of urbanization around the world that capitalism has triumphed over (read: conquered, murdered, and erased) all other ways of existing on this planet, human and non-human. We now live in a truly global industrial civilization – a monoculture of unprecedented scope; a totality of being and of tyranny.
To oppose this project of endless growth and centralization of control, we need to enter into the logic of a truly oppositional culture – a fundamental and radical break from of our entire material reality. This entails a complete negation of our current standard of living and entire way of being in the world. Anything short of this negation will only exacerbate the problem.
Acknowledging this does not mean that the task at hand is easy or that a majority of people will accept it as truth. In fact, even amidst collapse, most people will not resist the status quo and are likely to fight to the death to protect it.
“If your experience is that your water comes from the tap and that your food comes from the grocery store then you are going to defend to the death the system that brings those to you because your life depends on that; if your experience is that your water comes from a river and that your food comes from a land base then you will defend those to the death because your life depends on them. So part of the problem is that we have become so dependent upon this system that is killing and exploiting us, it has become almost impossible for us to imagine living outside of it and it’s very difficult physically for us to live outside of it.”
But this also does not mean that the task at hand is any less true. It does mean, however, that if we wish to build our struggle for a truly just and sustainable future we must first do away with our delusions, re-focus our strategies to the most effective, and be radically uncompromising in our vision.
On June 25th, Barack Obama – a president whom, despite his rhetoric of care, spent all of the last five years of his presidency completely ignoring climate change – finally addressed the nation in a speech that was supposed to signal a “serious plan forward.”
Many “environmental” groups along with the mainstream media heralded the speech as being progressive and a great commitment to the crisis at hand. In reality, much of the speech was full of nothing more than the doublespeak typical of his presidential legacy.
In a move that many considered to be a “big victory,” the president merely stated that he will ask the State Department not to approve the final construction of the Keystone XL pipeline unless it can first determine that it “will not lead to a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions.”
This is certainly a sly trick designed to pacify a building resistance, an attempt to re-frame the debate and make it appear as if our best interests are dutifully being considered. However, to even pretend that it is at all possible that this pipeline would not lead to a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions is delusional.
While the fight against the KXL has been a fight against a pipeline, it is predominantly being waged as a fight against tar sands oil production entirely. It is incredibly easy to argue that one specific pipeline will not result in significant GHG emissions if we isolate it from the very process that demands its existence in the first place.
It is the extraction process itself that is the net greenhouse gas emitter destroying the planet – not merely the nodes at which its product is transported and consumed. Although this infrastructure should be equally opposed and dismantled, stopping one pipeline being built will only mean that others will replace it or other means will be developed to export its goods.
We should settle for nothing less than a complete end to all extraction processes. It is not even close to a victory until that happens.
Despite his attempt to appease environmentalists with this speech, there were some activist groups that were rightfully confused and enraged with his hypocritical stance. In a speech meant to signal commitment to slow climate change, President Obama continued to praise and support the fossil fuel industry and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.
Chris Williams, author of Ecology and Socialism, examines the rhetoric and reality of this latest speech, providing a great reminder of whose interests this president actually serves – those of the ruling class. He also outlines some new ideas for Obama’s consideration:
- If you’re serious about stopping global warming, you need to veto KXL.
- If you’re serious about moving away from dirty energy, then there needs to be a strict timeline established for the complete phasing-out of all coal and nuclear plants by 2030 and their replacement, not with natural gas or nuclear, but with wind and solar power.
- If you’re really serious about carbon pollution, you can’t with any honesty discuss solutions without making massive cuts in military spending. The Department of Defense is responsible for 80 percent of the U.S. government’s energy consumption, and the U.S. military is by far the biggest polluter on the planet. Radical reductions in spending on the Pentagon are essential for human survival.
- You made no mention of the need for enormous investment in and expansion of public transit. If you’re serious about addressing climate change and making our cities more livable and the air more breathable, you will take the money you just saved by cutting military expenditures and apply it to the construction of new rail, light rail, tram and bus service, between and within cities, obviating the need for cars.
These ideas are some of the more prevalent solutions that are often tossed around in environmental and social justice circles. While the intention may be sincere, simply advocating for a shift from “dirty energy” (coal, oil, nuclear) to “clean energy” (solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, etc.) does a great disservice for generating informed decision-making at such a critical historical moment.
An often-cited study by these proponents is the work of Mark Z. Jacobson who, mere weeks after Hurricane Sandy devastated the Northeast U.S., presented the economic argument for investing in renewable energies. His plan calls for a complete shift off fossil fuels and towards a rapid investment in wind and solar power for the entire state of New York by the year 2030.
Not only was this study completed on the premise that our culture does not dramatically change its standard of living, the study fails to even acknowledge the resources required to build these new energy infrastructures.
These energy sources are not free from fossil fuels and are dependent on rare earth metals and minerals; this sort of rapid technological and social shift will require massive extractive processes – a price we simply cannot afford if we wish to stop the destruction of this planet.
If we wish to create a “sustainable” future that is also just, a question that should be immediately asked is: Where are these resources coming from? From whose land will we steal from in order to build this renewable-energy utopia? Despite the fact that New York State ranks in or near the top third of U.S. mineral production, none of the crucial metals and minerals currently used for the development of solar panels and wind turbines can be found here – we will have to steal these resources from some other land base.
Even more problematic, Jacobson’s study does not entirely take into consideration (to the extent that it is possible) the severe climatic disruptions we are unavoidably set to experience in the coming decades. The disappearance of the Arctic sea ice in the next few years will result in rising sea levels that could displace more than 400 million people globally. Is it worth the investment for an entirely new energy infrastructure that may ultimately be irrelevant by the time it can be actualized?
To continue to advocate for these “solutions,” is to continue living in the delusion that we can have our current standard of living and have a planet too. As Robert Jensen articulates in his article, “Get Apocalyptic: Why Radical is the New Normal“:
“…Toughest to dislodge may be the central illusion of the industrial world’s extractive economy: that we can maintain indefinitely a large-scale human presence on the earth at something like current First-World levels of consumption. The task for those with critical sensibilities is not just to resist oppressive social norms and illegitimate authority, but to speak a simple truth that almost no one wants to acknowledge: The high-energy/high-technology life of affluent societies is a dead end. We can’t predict with precision how resource competition and ecological degradation will play out in the coming decades, but it is ecocidal to treat the planet as nothing more than a mine from which we extract and a landfill into which we dump.
We cannot know for sure what time the party will end, but the party’s over.”
Our primary goal and vision for the world is a living planet. Nothing else matters. The biggest challenge to that goal is the industrial economy and it’s a moving target. If we have any chance at stopping it we cannot have a strategy that is focused solely on the injustices of today. Our actions and strategies should be based on where we’re heading – and where we’re heading is nothing short of near-term extinction.
This is not hyperbole or metaphor. 200 species went extinct today and another 200 species will go extinct tomorrow. 400,000 people die every year from climate-related deaths. A war has been declared against the living the world and we ought to start articulating which side we’re on, and we ought to seriously start fighting back.
I’m reminded of a recent quote from MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta), a militant group successful at halting more than 28% of Nigeria’s oil output between 2006 and 2009, which articulates the situation succinctly:
From today, every tanker vehicle we find distributing petroleum products including propane gas has become a legitimate target in our war against injustice, corruption, despotism and oppression.
This is the kind of vigor we need to be generating in our own movement. Never before have the lines between those who seek to destroy this planet and those who seek a radically different future, been so clearly drawn and defined. Yet, there is a degree of hesitancy within the majority of activist circles in the West that is painstakingly paralyzing our movements from reaching its goals.
If we stand in solidarity with all the human and non-human lives that have been lost, or are routinely brutalized to this way of life, we must fundamentally reject our own standards of living and ideals about how to enter into relationship with each other and with the land. Knowing that we have now entered a historical moment of incomprehensible climatic disruptions and changes for the foreseeable future, we’d be better to do away with our delusions sooner rather than later.
BREAKDOWN is a biweekly column by Joshua Headley, a writer and activist in New York City, exploring the intricacies of collapse and the inadequacy of prevalent ideologies, strategies, and solutions to the problems of industrial civilization.