Climate change has threatened the existence of several living species, including humankind itself.
One author predicts that on the current course, climate change will lead to a mass extinction on Earth.
Still, there are people fighting to change course.
In the more than 4 billion year history of the Earth, there have been just five mass extinctions, most scientists agree. One science journalist is predicting the next one is already here — and all there is to do is slow it down.
“We are on the verge of another major mass extinction, unless we change course dramatically,” Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning “The Sixth Extinction,” told CBS. “The question of how much we’re responsible for it is pretty much 100%. We have no reason to believe we would be seeing these elevated extinction rates were it not for all the ways we are changing the planet faster than other species can evolve to adapt to.”
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While her last book predicted that climate change would lead to mass extinction, Kolbert’s newest book, “Under a White Sky,” offers hope that humankind can change course. The book examines climate change efforts worldwide while also examining both the pros and cons of relying on technology to be the solution. Still, the New Yorker writer argues that something is better than nothing in this case.
“We have to realize that there’s a lot of damage that’s been done that’s kind of baked into this system,” Kolbert said. “We can leave a serious problem for our kids or we can leave a disastrous problem for our kids.”
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE RIGHT NOW
Whenever any animal population gets out of control, whether it be an overrun of deer or geese, humans usually step in and make plans to curb it through hunting or damaging nests. It seems cruel, but without natural predators to bring the population down, overpopulation could have devastating effects on the local environment. Yet, humans have shown themselves to be far more destructive than any other animal on this planet, so why don’t we offer ourselves the same consideration? I’m talking about anti-natalism here, the philosophical position that opposes procreation.
“If that level of destruction were caused by another species we would rapidly recommend that new members of that species not be brought into existence,” writes philosopher David Benatar.
There’s a fair argument to be made for anti-natalism that tears at most people’s desire to reproduce and a moral responsibility that few of us consider. This planet is overpopulated and we’re consuming more resources than the Earth can reproduce. You may not know this, but last week featured Earth Overshoot Day — the day when the Global Footprint Network announced that we’ve consumed a year’s worth of resources. The GFN estimates that the first Overshoot Day may have been back in the 1970s “due to the growth in the global population alongside the expansion of consumption around the world,” wrote Emma Howard from The Guardian.
“If that level of destruction were caused by another species, we would rapidly recommend that new members of that species not be brought into existence,” writes philosopher David Benatar, author of the anti-natalist book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.
“Nothing is lost by never coming into existence. By contrast, ceasing to exist does have costs.”
Many humans are capable of reflecting on whether or not they should reproduce, but few do, according to Benatar. He explains in an article forThe Critique:“This may be because humans are not as different from non-human animals as they would like to think. Like other animals, we are the products of evolution, with all the biological drives that such products can be expected to have.”
However, one of the main reasons for Benatar’s article is to explain what anti-natalism is not: “It is important to note that anti-natalism, while favouring human extinction, is a view about a particular means to extinction – namely non-procreation. Anti-natalists are not committed to either suicide or ‘speciecide,’ as some of their critics insensitively suggest. Nothing is lost by never coming into existence. By contrast, ceasing to exist does have costs.”
His piece is jarring and his book on the philosophical argument against procreation is even more so, but it challenges the presumption of “be fruitful and multiply” that most of us are brought up on. I have often stopped to think about whether or not I want to have children, but, for me, his argument challenges the deeper morality that has been absent from this decision.
An article by a British professor that predicts the imminent collapse of society, as a result of climate change, has been downloaded over half a million times. Many mainstream climate scientists totally reject his claims, but his followers are already preparing for the worst.
As the last light of the late-winter sunset illuminates her suburban back garden, Rachel Ingrams is looking at the sky and pondering how long we have left.
Her hands shielded from the gusts of February air by a well-worn pair of gardening gloves, Rachel carefully places tree spinach and scarlet pimpernel seeds into brown plastic pots.
Over the past year, Rachel, 45, has invested in a greenhouse and four bright blue water butts, and started building a raised vegetable patch out of planks of wood. It’s all part of an effort to rewild her garden and become as close to self-sufficient as she can, while society continues to function.
Within the next five to 10 years, she says, climate change is going to cause it to fall apart. “I don’t see things lasting any longer than that.”
So every evening, after picking up her children from school and returning to their former council house, she spends about two hours working outside.
“I find the more I do it, the less anxious I am,” she says. “It’s better than just sitting in the living room looking at the news and thinking, ‘Oh God, climate change is happening, what do we do?'”
Rachel is unsure about how much to tell her three daughters. “I don’t say to them that in five years we won’t be here,” she tells me. “But they do accept that food will be difficult to find.”
Every six weeks, she takes her two youngest daughters on an 450-mile round trip from their home in Sheffield to an organic farm in South Wales, where they learn how to forage for food. It’s vital for them to learn “skills we’ll be able to use in the natural world when all our systems have broken down,” she says.
“I don’t think what they’re learning in school is the right stuff any more, given what we’re facing. They need to be learning permaculture [self-sufficient agriculture] and other stuff, ancient stuff that we’ve forgotten how to do. We just go to Tesco.”
But she’s not at all confident her efforts will make much difference, in the long run. “I don’t think we can save the human race,” she says, “but hopefully we can leave the planet with some organic life.”
Around a year ago, a video of a talk by a British professor called Jem Bendell appeared on Rachel’s Twitter feed.
“As soon as I saw it, everything seemed to make sense in a terrifying way,” Rachel says.
“It felt like a bolt from the blue: ‘We’re all going to die.’ I felt it in my bones that we are at the beginning of the end.”
Bendell, a professor in sustainable leadership at the University of Cumbria, is the author of an academic article, Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy, which has become the closest thing to a manifesto for a generation of self-described “climate doomers”.
In it, he argues that it is too late for us to avoid “the inevitability of societal collapse” caused by climate change. Instead, we are facing a “near-term” breakdown of civilisation – near-term meaning within about a decade.
The paper was rejected for publication by a peer-reviewed journal, whose reviewers said its language was “not appropriate for an academic article”.
It is certainly unconventional, with its disturbing descriptions of what’s to come. “You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death,” Bendell writes.
After the journal’s rejection, in July 2018 Bendell self-published the 34-page article online.
It soon went viral. It has now been downloaded over half a million times, translated into a dozen languages, and sparked a global movement with thousands of followers – called Deep Adaptation, because Bendell calls on people to adapt their lifestyle to cope with the harsh conditions in his vision of the future.
But Bendell’s stark predictions have been dismissed by prominent climate scientists.
Prof Michael Mann, one of the world’s most renowned, describes Bendell’s paper as “pseudo-scientific nonsense”.
“To me, the Bendell paper is a perfect storm of misguidedness and wrongheadedness,” Mann says. “It is wrong on the science and its impacts. There is no credible evidence that we face ‘inevitable near-term collapse’.”
What’s more, Mann claims, Bendell’s “doomist framing” is “disabling” and will “lead us down the very same path of inaction as outright climate change denial. Fossil fuel interests love this framing.” Bendell is, he says, “a poster child for the dangerous new strain of crypto-denialism”.
Myles Allen, professor of Geosystem Science at the University of Oxford, is just as critical.
“Predictions of societal collapse in the next few years as a result of climate change seem very far-fetched,” he tells me.
“So far, the system’s responded to greenhouse gas emissions almost exactly as predicted. So to say it’s about to change and become much worse is speculation.
“Honestly this kind of material is at the level of science of the anti-vax campaign.”
Allen agrees with Mann that the paper’s pessimism is liable to make people feel powerless. “Lots of people are using this kind of catastrophism to argue that there’s no point in reducing emissions,” he says.
Bendell rejects the scientists’ claims and says people have been inspired by his paper to demand radical government measures to tackle climate change.
“I hope Michael Mann gets to meet some more climate activists on the streets, so he can meet the new breed of fearless people taking peaceful direct action after being moved by uncompromising assessments of our situation,” he says. “Many of the leaders of Extinction Rebellion read my paper and quit their jobs to go full time to try to reduce harm and save what we can.”
Other climate scientists say they have more time for Bendell.
“With global emissions continuing to rise, and no signs that the Paris targets will be respected, Jem Bendell has some justification in taking the strong position that it is already too late and we’d better prepare to deal with the collapse of the globalised economic system,” says Prof Will Steffen, from Australia’s Climate Change Council.
“Jem may, in fact, be ‘ahead of the game’ in warning us about what we might need to prepare for.”
He adds that there is a “credible risk” that even a 2C rise in global average temperatures above pre-industrial levels could initiate a “a tipping cascade… taking our climate system out of our control and on to a Hothouse Earth state”.
“I can’t say for sure that Jem Bendell is right… but we certainly can’t rule it out.”
In its bleak forecasts and direct language, Bendell’s paper has had an electrifying effect on many who have read it. Almost 10,000 people have joined a “Positive Deep Adaptation” Facebook group and about 3,000 are members of an online forum.
Here, the movement’s followers exchange ideas about how they can adapt their lives, businesses and communities in accordance with Deep Adaptation doctrine.
In the paper, Bendell proposes a “Deep Adaptation Agenda” – a conceptual roadmap for how to cope with the economic, political and environmental shocks he believes are coming our way.
He urges people to think about the aspects of our current way of life we will be able to hold on to and those we will have to let go of, referring to these two ideas as Resilience and Relinquishment.
He also talks about a third R, Restoration, which refers to old skills and habits that we will have to bring back. For some, such as Rachel, “restoration” means rewilding their gardens and local neighbourhoods, learning foraging skills and imagining how to survive in a world without electricity.
For others it’s about leaving the city or heavily populated areas of the country and heading for the hills.
Lionel Kirbyshire, a 60-year-old former chemicals engineer, says he began getting deeply worried about the climate a few years ago. He read, among other things, some of the writings of Guy MacPherson, a controversial American scientist unaffiliated to Deep Adaptation, who predicts humans will be extinct by 2030.
His head was soon “boiling with all this information that no-one wants to know”.
“There was a moment about a year ago when it hit me and I thought, ‘We’re in big trouble,'” he says. “When you look at the whole picture it’s terrifying. I think we’ve got 10 years, but we’ll be lucky to make it.”
A few months after reading the Deep Adaptation paper, Lionel and his wife, Jill, decided to move north. They sold their house in densely populated Bedfordshire and relocated to a three-bedroom terraced house in the small town of Cupar, Fife.
“In the back of my mind, [I think] when the crunch comes, there’ll be a lot of people in a small area and it’s going to be mayhem – and we’ll be safer if we move further north because it’s colder.”
They expect their grown-up children will join them in the coming years. In the meantime Lionel is investing in some growing boxes, in order to create raised vegetable beds in his garden, a foraging manual and water purification tablets.
“We’re not stockpiling food but as the years go on I can’t see us having much left.”
Another Deep Adaptation follower, who didn’t want his name to be published, told me he was planning to relocate from the South-East to the Welsh countryside.
“The basic things we’ll need will be food, water and shelter,” he says.
He plans to live off-grid, either joining an existing eco-community or “going it alone” with like-minded friends in a house clad with straw bales for insulation.
“Deep Adaptation isn’t a bunker mentality of doing it yourself. You want a mix of people with different skills,” he says.
But he also says he has been taking crossbow lessons, “because you never know”.
“It seems like a pretty useful weapon to have around to protect ourselves. I’d hate the thought I’d ever have to use it but the thought of standing by and not being able to protect the ones I love is pretty horrifying.”
Jem Bendell says Deep Adaptation advocates non-violence. Its online platforms ban members from discussing “fascistic or violent approaches to the situation”.
Though it didn’t appear in Bendell’s first paper he later added a fourth R, Reconciliation, which is all about living in peace. And when I finally get through to him, after two months of unreturned emails and conversations with his colleagues in the Deep Adaptation “core team”, he puts a big emphasis on love.
“People are rising up in love in response to their despair and fear,” he tells me. “[Deep Adaptation] seems to have reached people in all walks of life, at least in the West – heads of banks, UN agencies, European Commission divisions, political parties, religious leaders…”
His message, he says, is one of “putting love and truth first”.
At present, the professor’s followers often feel that their truth they believe in is ignored and dismissed by the rest of society.
Lionel says that among people he meets “no-one wants to talk about it”.
He’s joined several online groups – with names like Near-Term Human Extinction Support Group and Collapse Chronicles – where he can share his despair.
“Sometimes I say that I’m feeling quite low and someone will say they’re feeling the same,” he tells me. “So you know you’re not in it alone.”
Rachel tells me that she also sometimes feels isolated. Her attempts to get her neighbours to collaborate in a community compost heap have mostly fallen on deaf ears, so she turns to Deep Adaptation’s online forums to find support.
“It’s much easier when you have a group to face the tragedy unfolding before us. If I am feeling anxious, hopeless or full of grief I can go on there and tell them how I’m feeling.
“There are 9,000 people all over the world, so you can post on there in the middle of the night and get support. I post ideas about my compost bin and get lots of messages back with people being encouraging.”
However, she thinks there will be a day when the electricity is cut off, so she is learning to recite poems by heart, in case she finds herself alone, with no internet or possessions.
Tomorrow is the end of the world, except where I am at the moment, where it is now tomorrow and the world is still intact.
Australia, New Zealand and Asia seem to be doing well. No tsunami’s, massive earthquakes, exploding Krakatoas, the Earth has not split, and the oceans have not boiled over and a few billion humans continue to go about their silly business of slowly destroying the planet.
There has been no rapture and the fanatical Christians are still with us unfortunately. I have not heard of any of them being swept en mass into heaven. I’m still hoping the nut bars from the Westboro Baptist church get raptured. They can protest babies entering heaven there instead of Connecticut.
But what about the Mayans?
Ahh the Mayans. They did not do so well at predicting their own demise.
I remember August 27th, 1987. That was the day that the Aztec calendar came to an end. They also were not that good at prediction. They did not see the fall of their own empire until they heard Spanish voices in their streets.
We place a great deal of reverence for ancient civilizations forgetting that they were in fact quite primitive, although probably more intellectual in many ways than modern society, at least for the very few who could actually read and write. Without television, they actually had to read, well some of them anyways, and without the modern music industry people actually had to sing and listen to musicians in small venues.
For the most part, be they Europeans, Meso-American Indians, Asians or Africans a great deal of time and effort was wasted on superstition and fighting wars over superstitious beliefs. Kind of like the situation today really.
And one thing that has not changed is this ridiculous belief that humans have some sort of special insight into nature and reality. Astrology for example does not include the planets that were unknown at the time which pretty much knocks all the equations flat on their ass by virtue of the fact that planets that were actually there were not influencing anything because nobody knew they were there and once discovered they still remained absent from astrology because all the signs and symbols were established and not subject to change.
The Mayan Calendar like the Aztec Calendar is round. It really does not end, it just starts all over again.
The fact is that a calendar’s days are numbered.
It’s like all the hype and hysteria at the end of millenniums and the strange thing is that millenniums are based on random dates that have no meaning. The year 2000 is not the year 2000 for the Muslims, the Jews or the Chinese for example.
Humans do not and never have controlled nature, physics, or the future. Human vanity may wish otherwise but the reality is that humanity is simply one of billions of species that have inhabited the Earth and humanity has only been around for a tiny fraction of the Earth’s history. The Earth will be around for a few billion years after humanity has disappeared.
Instead of worrying about silly predictions, we should be concerned about what we are doing to ourselves and our children with escalating population growth and diminishing resources. This is where the end will come about, the end of civilization first followed by extinction of the human species. We will be eradicated by our own ecological stupidity.
When will this happen? That I cannot say. In twenty years, a hundred years, but it will happen unless we curb growth and end the wasteful consumption of the planet’s diminishing resources.
When the Oceans die, we die.
When there is no more fresh water, we die.
When there are no more forests, we die.
When the land dies, we die.
When diversity dies, we die.
Why did the Mayans and the Incas disappear?
They disappeared because their populations grew greater than their resource base. That is the real lesson they left us.
If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist? Would not a man rather have so much sympathy with the coming generation as to spare it the burden of existence, or at any rate not take it upon himself to impose that burden upon it in cold blood?~ Arthur Schopenhauer
I have been accused of being an anti-natalist. The accusations suggest my particular variety of anti-natalism is congruent with life as a serial killer. Because I do not appreciate being called such names without supporting evidence, I decided the issue was worth a quick etymological investigation.
The definition of natalism, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, is “an attitude or policy favoring or encouraging population growth.” The definition includes no mention of serial killers. Indeed, the definition mentions no murder of any kind.
I decided not to have children of my own at the age of 19 years. At the time, it made no sense to me to bring another human into the world without his or her permission, particularly in light of the publication of Limits to Growth seven years earlier. It still makes no sense to me. So far, I have succeeded in my personal quest to avoid adding more people to Earth.
I explained the horrors of continued growth of the human population for more than two decades in college and university classrooms. Few students took my advice seriously. I learned to not be attached to the outcome of my efforts, in the classroom and beyond. I thank my students for serving as my teachers.
I am no fan of continued growth of the human population. At more than 7.7 billion and growing rapidly, I think there are plenty of us.
I am no fan of death. I am no fan of extinction, human or otherwise.
I know I will die. I am pretty sure you will die. I know our species, Homo sapiens, will go extinct. The only serious questions about death and extinction involve cause and timing.
I am certain my own death and extinction of Homo sapiens will occur soon. I am still no fan of death. I am still no fan of extinction, human or otherwise.
Apparently I am an anti-natalist. Apparently, based upon logic, I need not apologize for donning this label.
Too many humans, combined with an astonishing rate of consumption, have brought us to the brink of extinction. Too late to turn back now, I do not judge, shame, or blame people for bringing more humans to life. I am an educator, not a judge.
Thanks to muse Mimi German for inspiring this essay
“There is infinite hope,” Kafka tells us, “only not for us.” This is a fittingly mystical epigram from a writer whose characters strive for ostensibly reachable goals and, tragically or amusingly, never manage to get any closer to them. But it seems to me, in our rapidly darkening world, that the converse of Kafka’s quip is equally true: There is no hope, except for us.
I’m talking, of course, about climate change. The struggle to rein in global carbon emissions and keep the planet from melting down has the feel of Kafka’s fiction. The goal has been clear for thirty years, and despite earnest efforts we’ve made essentially no progress toward reaching it. Today, the scientific evidence verges on irrefutable. If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilization of life on earth—massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.
If you care about the planet, and about the people and animals who live on it, there are two ways to think about this. You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.
Even at this late date, expressions of unrealistic hope continue to abound. Hardly a day seems to pass without my reading that it’s time to “roll up our sleeves” and “save the planet”; that the problem of climate change can be “solved” if we summon the collective will. Although this message was probably still true in 1988, when the science became fully clear, we’ve emitted as much atmospheric carbon in the past thirty years as we did in the previous two centuries of industrialization. The facts have changed, but somehow the message stays the same.
Psychologically, this denial makes sense. Despite the outrageous fact that I’ll soon be dead forever, I live in the present, not the future. Given a choice between an alarming abstraction (death) and the reassuring evidence of my senses (breakfast!), my mind prefers to focus on the latter. The planet, too, is still marvelously intact, still basically normal—seasons changing, another election year coming, new comedies on Netflix—and its impending collapse is even harder to wrap my mind around than death. Other kinds of apocalypse, whether religious or thermonuclear or asteroidal, at least have the binary neatness of dying: one moment the world is there, the next moment it’s gone forever. Climate apocalypse, by contrast, is messy. It will take the form of increasingly severe crises compounding chaotically until civilization begins to fray. Things will get very bad, but maybe not too soon, and maybe not for everyone. Maybe not for me.
ome of the denial, however, is more willful. The evil of the Republican Party’s position on climate science is well known, but denial is entrenched in progressive politics, too, or at least in its rhetoric. The Green New Deal, the blueprint for some of the most substantial proposals put forth on the issue, is still framed as our last chance to avert catastrophe and save the planet, by way of gargantuan renewable-energy projects. Many of the groups that support those proposals deploy the language of “stopping” climate change, or imply that there’s still time to prevent it. Unlike the political right, the left prides itself on listening to climate scientists, who do indeed allow that catastrophe is theoretically avertable. But not everyone seems to be listening carefully. The stress falls on the word theoretically.
Our atmosphere and oceans can absorb only so much heat before climate change, intensified by various feedback loops, spins completely out of control. The consensus among scientists and policy-makers is that we’ll pass this point of no return if the global mean temperature rises by more than two degrees Celsius (maybe a little more, but also maybe a little less). The I.P.C.C.—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—tells us that, to limit the rise to less than two degrees, we not only need to reverse the trend of the past three decades. We need to approach zero net emissions, globally, in the next three decades.
This is, to say the least, a tall order. It also assumes that you trust the I.P.C.C.’s calculations. New research, described last month in Scientific American, demonstrates that climate scientists, far from exaggerating the threat of climate change, have underestimated its pace and severity. To project the rise in the global mean temperature, scientists rely on complicated atmospheric modelling. They take a host of variables and run them through supercomputers to generate, say, ten thousand different simulations for the coming century, in order to make a “best” prediction of the rise in temperature. When a scientist predicts a rise of two degrees Celsius, she’s merely naming a number about which she’s very confident: the rise will be at least two degrees. The rise might, in fact, be far higher.
As a non-scientist, I do my own kind of modelling. I run various future scenarios through my brain, apply the constraints of human psychology and political reality, take note of the relentless rise in global energy consumption (thus far, the carbon savings provided by renewable energy have been more than offset by consumer demand), and count the scenarios in which collective action averts catastrophe. The scenarios, which I draw from the prescriptions of policy-makers and activists, share certain necessary conditions.
The first condition is that every one of the world’s major polluting countries institute draconian conservation measures, shut down much of its energy and transportation infrastructure, and completely retool its economy. According to a recent paper in Nature, the carbon emissions from existing global infrastructure, if operated through its normal lifetime, will exceed our entire emissions “allowance”—the further gigatons of carbon that can be released without crossing the threshold of catastrophe. (This estimate does not include the thousands of new energy and transportation projects already planned or under construction.) To stay within that allowance, a top-down intervention needs to happen not only in every country but throughout every country. Making New York City a green utopia will not avail if Texans keep pumping oil and driving pickup trucks.
The actions taken by these countries must also be the right ones. Vast sums of government money must be spent without wasting it and without lining the wrong pockets. Here it’s useful to recall the Kafkaesque joke of the European Union’s biofuel mandate, which served to accelerate the deforestation of Indonesia for palm-oil plantations, and the American subsidy of ethanol fuel, which turned out to benefit no one but corn farmers.
Finally, overwhelming numbers of human beings, including millions of government-hating Americans, need to accept high taxes and severe curtailment of their familiar lifestyles without revolting. They must accept the reality of climate change and have faith in the extreme measures taken to combat it. They can’t dismiss news they dislike as fake. They have to set aside nationalism and class and racial resentments. They have to make sacrifices for distant threatened nations and distant future generations. They have to be permanently terrified by hotter summers and more frequent natural disasters, rather than just getting used to them. Every day, instead of thinking about breakfast, they have to think about death.
Call me a pessimist or call me a humanist, but I don’t see human nature fundamentally changing anytime soon. I can run ten thousand scenarios through my model, and in not one of them do I see the two-degree target being met.
To judge from recent opinion polls, which show that a majority of Americans (many of them Republican) are pessimistic about the planet’s future, and from the success of a book like David Wallace-Wells’s harrowing “The Uninhabitable Earth,” which was released this year, I’m not alone in having reached this conclusion. But there continues to be a reluctance to broadcast it. Some climate activists argue that if we publicly admit that the problem can’t be solved, it will discourage people from taking any ameliorative action at all. This seems to me not only a patronizing calculation but an ineffectual one, given how little progress we have to show for it to date. The activists who make it remind me of the religious leaders who fear that, without the promise of eternal salvation, people won’t bother to behave well. In my experience, nonbelievers are no less loving of their neighbors than believers. And so I wonder what might happen if, instead of denying reality, we told ourselves the truth.
First of all, even if we can no longer hope to be saved from two degrees of warming, there’s still a strong practical and ethical case for reducing carbon emissions. In the long run, it probably makes no difference how badly we overshoot two degrees; once the point of no return is passed, the world will become self-transforming. In the shorter term, however, half measures are better than no measures. Halfway cutting our emissions would make the immediate effects of warming somewhat less severe, and it would somewhat postpone the point of no return. The most terrifying thing about climate change is the speed at which it’s advancing, the almost monthly shattering of temperature records. If collective action resulted in just one fewer devastating hurricane, just a few extra years of relative stability, it would be a goal worth pursuing.
In fact, it would be worth pursuing even if it had no effect at all. To fail to conserve a finite resource when conservation measures are available, to needlessly add carbon to the atmosphere when we know very well what carbon is doing to it, is simply wrong. Although the actions of one individual have zero effect on the climate, this doesn’t mean that they’re meaningless. Each of us has an ethical choice to make. During the Protestant Reformation, when “end times” was merely an idea, not the horribly concrete thing it is today, a key doctrinal question was whether you should perform good works because it will get you into Heaven, or whether you should perform them simply because they’re good—because, while Heaven is a question mark, you know that this world would be better if everyone performed them. I can respect the planet, and care about the people with whom I share it, without believing that it will save me.
More than that, a false hope of salvation can be actively harmful. If you persist in believing that catastrophe can be averted, you commit yourself to tackling a problem so immense that it needs to be everyone’s overriding priority forever. One result, weirdly, is a kind of complacency: by voting for green candidates, riding a bicycle to work, avoiding air travel, you might feel that you’ve done everything you can for the only thing worth doing. Whereas, if you accept the reality that the planet will soon overheat to the point of threatening civilization, there’s a whole lot more you should be doing.
Our resources aren’t infinite. Even if we invest much of them in a longest-shot gamble, reducing carbon emissions in the hope that it will save us, it’s unwise to invest all of them. Every billion dollars spent on high-speed trains, which may or may not be suitable for North America, is a billion not banked for disaster preparedness, reparations to inundated countries, or future humanitarian relief. Every renewable-energy mega-project that destroys a living ecosystem—the “green” energy development now occurring in Kenya’s national parks, the giant hydroelectric projects in Brazil, the construction of solar farms in open spaces, rather than in settled areas—erodes the resilience of a natural world already fighting for its life. Soil and water depletion, overuse of pesticides, the devastation of world fisheries—collective will is needed for these problems, too, and, unlike the problem of carbon, they’re within our power to solve. As a bonus, many low-tech conservation actions (restoring forests, preserving grasslands, eating less meat) can reduce our carbon footprint as effectively as massive industrial changes.
All-out war on climate change made sense only as long as it was winnable. Once you accept that we’ve lost it, other kinds of action take on greater meaning. Preparing for fires and floods and refugees is a directly pertinent example. But the impending catastrophe heightens the urgency of almost any world-improving action. In times of increasing chaos, people seek protection in tribalism and armed force, rather than in the rule of law, and our best defense against this kind of dystopia is to maintain functioning democracies, functioning legal systems, functioning communities. In this respect, any movement toward a more just and civil society can now be considered a meaningful climate action. Securing fair elections is a climate action. Combatting extreme wealth inequality is a climate action. Shutting down the hate machines on social media is a climate action. Instituting humane immigration policy, advocating for racial and gender equality, promoting respect for laws and their enforcement, supporting a free and independent press, ridding the country of assault weapons—these are all meaningful climate actions. To survive rising temperatures, every system, whether of the natural world or of the human world, will need to be as strong and healthy as we can make it.
And then there’s the matter of hope. If your hope for the future depends on a wildly optimistic scenario, what will you do ten years from now, when the scenario becomes unworkable even in theory? Give up on the planet entirely? To borrow from the advice of financial planners, I might suggest a more balanced portfolio of hopes, some of them longer-term, most of them shorter. It’s fine to struggle against the constraints of human nature, hoping to mitigate the worst of what’s to come, but it’s just as important to fight smaller, more local battles that you have some realistic hope of winning. Keep doing the right thing for the planet, yes, but also keep trying to save what you love specifically—a community, an institution, a wild place, a species that’s in trouble—and take heart in your small successes. Any good thing you do now is arguably a hedge against the hotter future, but the really meaningful thing is that it’s good today. As long as you have something to love, you have something to hope for.
In Santa Cruz, where I live, there’s an organization called the Homeless Garden Project. On a small working farm at the west end of town, it offers employment, training, support, and a sense of community to members of the city’s homeless population. It can’t “solve” the problem of homelessness, but it’s been changing lives, one at a time, for nearly thirty years. Supporting itself in part by selling organic produce, it contributes more broadly to a revolution in how we think about people in need, the land we depend on, and the natural world around us. In the summer, as a member of its C.S.A. program, I enjoy its kale and strawberries, and in the fall, because the soil is alive and uncontaminated, small migratory birds find sustenance in its furrows.
There may come a time, sooner than any of us likes to think, when the systems of industrial agriculture and global trade break down and homeless people outnumber people with homes. At that point, traditional local farming and strong communities will no longer just be liberal buzzwords. Kindness to neighbors and respect for the land—nurturing healthy soil, wisely managing water, caring for pollinators—will be essential in a crisis and in whatever society survives it. A project like the Homeless Garden offers me the hope that the future, while undoubtedly worse than the present, might also, in some ways, be better. Most of all, though, it gives me hope for today.
· Jonathan Franzen is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker
New species related to humans discovered in cave01:15
(CNN)Ancient bones and teeth found in Callao Cave in the Philippines have led to the discovery of a previously unknown species related to humans called Homo luzonensis, according to a new study. The fossils belonged to two adults and one child who lived between 50,000 and 67,000 years ago.
This time frame means luzonensis would have lived at the same time as Neanderthals, Denisovans, Homo sapiens and the small-bodied Homo floresiensis. Like other extinct hominins, luzonensis is more of a close relative than a direct ancestor.
In 2007, a single foot bone was found in the cave and dated to 67,000 years ago. During excavations in 2011 and 2015, researchers found 12 additional hand and foot bones, including a partial femur and teeth, in the same layer of the cave. The researchers have named the new species luzonensis because of where it was found on the island of Luzon.
They are now the earliest human remains found in the Philippines. Previously, Homo sapiens remains were found on Palawan island and dated to between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago.
But what makes luzonensis different from other species? It’s all in the distinct premolar teeth, which vary considerably from anything identified in the other species belonging to the Homo genus.
Callao Cave on Luzon island, where the fossils were discovered.
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The seven premolars and molars are smaller and more simplified than those of other species. Although some of the characteristics can be compared to Homo erectus and Homo sapiens, the teeth and jaw features remain distinct as far as the odd features they combine.
This factor, along with the fact that the researchers haven’t been able to remove DNA from the fossils, makes it difficult to determine where luzonensis fits, evolution-wise.
The two hand bones and three foot bones also show a unique anatomy.
Although separated by millions of years of evolution, luzonensis’ toe bone strongly resembles that of Australopithecus afarensis, or the famed “Lucy” fossil. Australopithecus lived between 2.9 million and 3.9 million years ago.
The finger bone also resembles that of Australopithecus, as well as early Homo species. The finger and toe bones are curved, like those of early hominins, likely suggesting that climbing was important to their lifestyle and survival.
“If you take each feature one by one, you will also find it in one or several hominin species, but if you take the whole combination of features, no other species of the genus Homo is similar, thus indicating that they belong to a new species,” said Florent Détroit, study author and paleoanthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.
Complications in the evolutionary tree
Luzonensis presents a bit of a mystery because, as with the discovery of Homo floresiensis, previously unknown hominin species complicate the evolutionary tree. This also shifts the idea of which species migrated.
Given that Africa is regarded as the “Cradle of Life” and Homo erectus was found on the Indonesian island of Java, the idea is that erectus migrated out of Africa and helped disperse the species.
Floresiensis, nicknamed the “hobbit” species, have been found only on the island of Flores near Indonesia and were discovered in 2003. They lived between 100,000 and 60,000 years ago. And although they stood only around 3½ feet tall and had brains about one-third the size of a modern human’s, they made stone tools and hunted elephants.
It is believed that floresiensis was more diminutive in stature due to its island environment and limited resources. The same may be true for luzonensis, the researchers said.
Both of these species lived on islands that would have been reachable only by crossing the sea. And there is evidence of animal butchery on Luzon that dates back 700,000 years, but the researchers don’t know whether luzonensis is responsible.
The finding does build the case that hominins were already present on the island. They could have been luzonensis or the species descended from them, or perhaps they descended from another unknown group, the researchers said.
Seafaring could have happened by accident as they drifted on rafts or due to intentional navigation, the researchers said.
“We have more and more evidence that they successfully settled on several islands in the remote past in Southeast Asia, so it was probably not so accidental,” Détroit said. “Another important thing to have in mind is that you cannot successfully settle on an island with a single event of arrival of only few people, you need several individuals of course, and you need several arrivals, at least at the beginning, so that you have enough founders settled on the island.”
More exploration to come
So how did they evolve, and why do they share such varied characteristics with more ancient hominins? The answer may lie in more excavations and discoveries yet to be made on the islands of Southeast Asia.
“Our picture of homin evolution in Asia during the Pleistocene just got even messier, more complicated and a whole lot more interesting,” Matthew Tocheri wrote in an accompanying News and Views article. Tocheri, the Canada Research Chair in Human Origins at Lakehead University in Ontario, did not participate in this study.
The researchers are planning studying the biomechanical aspects of the fossils and how they may have moved, as well as more excavations of the cave or identifying new potential sites.
“As we can see now, Southeast Asia, and especially their islands, is a fantastic place for studying hominin evolution, and conducting fieldwork to find more sites with ancient archaeology and hominin fossils,” Détroit said.
“Today’s oceans are absorbing carbon about an order of magnitude faster than the worst case in the geologic record.” (Photo: Onny Carr/Flickr/cc)
Next year, the British Government will host the UN Climate talks in London, known as COP26, which are the most important climate talks since Paris in 2015.
So for the next year, the UK will be a critical leader in the global fight against climate change.
For the UK to ask other nations to act, it also has to step up to the plate. And yet it is failing. Badly.
Today, the UK Government’s own experts, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) outlined in its annual report to Parliament, how “Our credibility in the COP26 Presidency rests on real action at home.”
But then they brutally concluded that the “UK action to curb greenhouse gas emissions is lagging behind what is needed to meet legally-binding emissions targets.”
The CCC noted that since June 2018, the British “Government has delivered only 1 of 25 critical policies needed to get emissions reductions back on track.”
Chris Stark, the CCC Chief Executive, said it would be prudent to not only prepare for a 1.5 degree rise in temperature, but also a 2 degree rise, and even a 4 degree rise.
Four degrees is widely seen as completely catastrophic by climate scientists.
So even a country like the UK, which has touted itself as a climate leader, is failing miserably. There is just no political will for any meaningful action.
The politicians ignore the daily alarm bells in the science, whether it is melting Antarctica ice caps or the growing temperatures in the ocean.
For example, earlier this week Daniel Rothman, professor of geophysics and co-director of the Lorenz Center in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, released a study in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesexamining how the rate at which carbon dioxide is currently entering the oceans could push us past a catastrophic threshold.
This threshold could happen slowly, or even suddenly, but when it does “the Earth may respond with a runaway cascade of chemical feedbacks, leading to extreme ocean acidification that dramatically amplifies the effects of the original trigger.”
As the press release from MIT regarding the study outlined: “Today’s oceans are absorbing carbon about an order of magnitude faster than the worst case in the geologic record.”
We are pumping so much carbon dioxide into the oceans that according to Rothman, today we are “at the precipice” of a threshold of “excitation.” If it occurs, “the resulting spike — as evidenced through ocean acidification, species die-offs, and more — is likely to be similar to past global catastrophes.”
If and when we cross this threshold, the carbon cycle is predicted to react “with a cascade of positive feedbacks that magnified the original trigger, causing the entire system to spike, in the form of severe ocean acidification.”
In other words, “if today’s human-induced emissions cross the threshold and continue beyond it, as Rothman predicts they soon will, the consequences may be just as severe as what the Earth experienced during its previous mass extinctions.”
Rothman’s new research comes two years after he predicted that a mass extinction event could take place as early as the end of this century.
Timothy Lenton, a Professor of Climate Change and Earth Systems Science at the University of Exeter, responded to the study by telling CommonDreams. “If we push the Earth system too far, then it takes over and determines its own response—past that point there will be little we can do about it.” Then we face runaway climate change leading into catastrophic mass extinction.
As with much of the news about climate change, this new research hardly got any press mention. The politicians sleep-walk on.
The magazine Mother Jones recently explored the issue of climate scientists who know “of a looming catastrophe but must struggle to function in a world that does not comprehend what is coming and, worse, largely ignores the warnings of those who do.”
The acutely powerful article details the daily distress of climate scientists, whose warnings are being ignored.
One scientist, Sarah Myhre, a former senior research associate at the University of Washington’s School of Oceanography, experiences “a profound level of grief on a daily basis because of the scale of the crisis that is coming”.
It is not that we didn’t know. It is not that the scientists didn’t warn us. We knew. But Exxonknew too. And it never wanted us to know the truth. And their decades-long denial campaign still has ramifactions today, as politicians refuse to act to the climate emergency that we are in.
We live in dangerous times — no doubt about it. How did we get to such a state of affairs where democracy itself is in a very fragile condition and the future of human civilization itself at stake? In this interview, renowned thinker, Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at MIT and Laureate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Arizona Noam Chomsky, sheds light on the state of the world and the condition of the only superpower left in the global arena.
C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, looking at the current state of the world, I think it is not an exaggeration at all to say that we live in ominously dangerous times — and not simply in a period of great global complexity, confusion and uncertainty, which, after all, has been the “normal” state of the global political condition in the modem era. I believe, in fact, that we are in the midst of a whirlpool of events and developments that are eroding our capacity to manage human affairs in a way that is conducive to the attainment of a political and economic order based on stability, justice and sustainability. Indeed, the contemporary world is fraught, in my own mind at least, with perils and challenges that will test severely humanity’s ability to maintain a steady course toward anything resembling a civilized life.
How did we get to such a state of affairs, with tremendous economic inequalities and the resurgence of the irrational in political affairs on the one hand, and an uncanny capacity, on the other, to look away from the existential crises such as global warming and nuclear weapons which will surely destroy civilized life as we know it if we continue with “business as usual”?
Noam Chomsky: How indeed.
The question of how we got to this state of affairs is truly vast in scope, requiring not just inquiry into the origin and nature of social and cultural institutions but also into depths of human psychology that are barely understood. We can, however, take a much more modest stab at the questions, asking about certain highly consequential decisions that could have been made differently, and about specific cases where we can identify some of the roots of looking away.
The history of nuclear weapons provides some striking cases. One critical decision was in 1944, when Germany was out of the war and it was clear that the only target was Japan. One cannot really say that a decision was made to proceed nevertheless to create devices that could devastate Japan even more thoroughly, and in the longer term threaten to destroy us as well. It seems that the question never seriously arose, apart from such isolated figures as Joseph Rotblat — who was later barred reentry to the U.S.
Another critical decision that was not made was in the early 1950s. At the time, there were still no long-range delivery systems for nuclear weapons (ICBMs). It might have been possible to reach an agreement with Russia to bar their development. That was a plausible surmise at the time, and release of Russian archives makes it seem an even more likely prospect. Remarkably, there is no trace of any consideration of pursuing steps to bar the only weapons systems that would pose a lethal threat to the U.S., so we learn from McGeorge Bundy’s standard work on the history of nuclear weapons, with access to the highest-level sources. Perhaps still more remarkably, there has, to my knowledge, been no voiced interest in this astonishing fact.
It is easy to go on. The result is 75 years of living under the threat of virtually total destruction, particularly since the successful development of thermonuclear weapons by 1953 — in this case a decision, rather than lack of one. And as the record shows all too graphically, it is a virtual miracle that we have survived the nuclear age thus far.
That raises your question of why we look away. I do not understand it, and never have. The question has been on my mind almost constantly since that grim day in August 1945 when we heard the news that an atom bomb had wiped out Hiroshima, with hideous casualties. Apart from the terrible tragedy itself, it was at once clear that human intelligence had devised the means to destroy us all — not quite yet, but there could be little doubt that once the genie was out of the bottle, technological developments would carry the threat to the end. I was then a junior counselor in a summer camp. The news was broadcast in the morning. Everyone listened — and then went off to the planned activity — a baseball game, swimming, whatever was scheduled. I couldn’t believe it. I was so shocked I just took off into the woods and sat by myself for several hours. I still can’t believe it, or understand how that has persisted even as more has been learned about the threats. The same sentiments have been voiced by others, recently by William Perry [former defense secretary], who has ample experience on the inside. He reports that he is doubly terrified: by the growing risk of terrible catastrophe, and the failure to be terrified by it.
It was not known in 1945, but the world was then entering into a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in which human activity is having a severe impact on the environment that sustains life. Warnings about the potential threat of global warming date back to a 1958 paper by Hans Suess and Roger Revelle, and by the 1970s, concerns were deeply troubling to climate scientists. ExxonMobil scientists were in the forefront of spelling out the severe dangers. That is the background for a crucial decision by ExxonMobil management in 1989, after (and perhaps because) James Hansen had brought the grave threat to public attention. In 1989, management decided to lead the denialist campaign.
That continues to the present. ExxonMobil now proudly declares that it intends to extract and sell all of the 25 billion barrels in its current reserves, while continuing to seek new sources.
Executives are surely aware that this is virtually a death-knell for organized human society in any form that we know, but evidently it doesn’t matter. Looking away with a vengeance.
The suicidal impulses of the fossil fuel industry have been strongly supported by Republican administrations, by now, under Trump, leaving the U.S. in splendid isolation internationally in not only refusing to participate in international efforts to address this existential threat but in devoting major efforts to accelerate the race to disaster.
It is hard to find proper words to describe what is happening — and the limited attention it receives.
This again raises your question of how we can look away. For ExxonMobil, the explanation is simple enough: The logic of the capitalist market rules — what Joseph Stiglitz 25 years ago called the “religion” that markets know best. The same reasoning extends beyond, for example to the major banks that are pouring funds into fossil fuel extraction, including the most dangerous, like Canadian tar sands, surely in full awareness of the consequences.
CEOs face a choice: They can seek to maximize profit and market share, and (consciously) labor to undermine the prospects for life on earth; or they can refuse to do so, and be removed and replaced by someone who will. The problems are not just individual; they are institutional, hence much deeper and harder to overcome.
Something similar holds for media. In the best newspapers there are regular articles by the finest journalists applauding the fracking revolution and the opening of new areas for exploitation, driving the U.S. well ahead of Saudi Arabia in the race to destroy human civilization. Sometimes there are a few words about environmental effects: fracking in Wyoming may harm the water supplies for ranchers. But scarcely if ever is there a word on the effect on the planet — which is, surely, well understood by authors and editors.
In this case, I suppose the explanation is professionalism. The ethics of the profession requires “objectivity”: reporting accurately what is going on “within the beltway” and in executive suites, and keeping to the assigned story. To add a word about the lethal broader impact would be “bias,” reserved for the opinion pages.
There are countless illustrations, but I think something deeper may be involved, something related to the “religion” that Stiglitz criticized. Worship of markets has many effects. One we see in the origins of the reigning neoliberal faiths. Their origin is in post-World War I Vienna, after the collapse of the trading system within the Hapsburg empire. Ludwig von Mises and his associates fashioned the basic doctrines that were quickly labeled “neoliberalism,” based on the principle of “sound economics”: markets know best, no interference with them is tolerable.
There are immediate consequences. One is that labor unions, which interfere with flexibility of labor markets, must be destroyed, along with social democratic measures. Mises openly welcomed the crushing of the vibrant Austrian unions and social democracy by state violence in 1928, laying the groundwork for Austrian fascism. Which Mises welcomed as well. He became economic consultant to the proto-fascist Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, and in his major work Liberalism, explained that “It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has, for the moment, saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history.”
These themes resonate through the modern neoliberal era. The U.S. has an unusually violent labor history, but the attack on unions gained new force under Reagan with the onset of the neoliberal era. As the business press reported, employers were effectively informed that labor laws would not be enforced, and the U.S. became the only industrial society apart from Apartheid South Africa to tolerate not just scabs, but even “permanent replacement workers.” Neoliberal globalization, precarity of employment, and other devices carry the process of destroying organized labor further.
These developments form a core part of the efforts to realize the Thatcherite dictum that “there is no society,” only atomized individuals, who face the forces of “sound economics” alone — becoming what Marx called “a sack of potatoes” in his condemnation of the policies of the authoritarian rulers of mid-19th century Europe.
A sack of potatoes cannot react in any sensible way even to existential crises. Lacking the very bases of deliberative democracy, such as functioning labor unions and other organizations, people have little choice beyond “looking away.” What can they hope to do? As Mises memorably explained, echoed by Milton Friedman and others, political democracy is superfluous — indeed an impediment to sound economics: “free competition does all that is needed” in markets that function without interference.
The pathology is not new, but can become more severe under supportive social and economic institutions and practices.
Yet, only a couple of decades ago, there was wild celebration among liberal and conservative elites alike about the “end of history,” but, even today, there are some who claim that we have made great progress and that the world is better today than it has ever been in the past. Obviously, “the end of history” thesis was something of a Hegelian illusion by staunch defenders of the global capitalist order, but what about the optimism expressed by the likes of Steven Pinker regarding the present? And how can we square the fact that this liberal optimism is not reflected by any stretch in the politico-ideological currents and trends that are in motion today both inside western nations but also around the world?
The celebrations were mostly farcical, and have been quietly shelved. On the “great progress,” there is serious work. The best I know is Robert Gordon’s compelling study of the rise and fall of American growth, which extends beyond the U.S. though with some modifications. Gordon observes that there was virtually no economic growth for millennia until 1770. Then came a period of slow growth for another century, and then a “special century” from 1870 to 1970, with important inventions ranging from indoor plumbing to electrical grids and transportation, which radically changed human life, with significant progress by many measures.
Since the 1970s the picture is much more mixed. The basis for the contemporary high-tech economy was established in the last decades of the special century, mainly through public investment, adapted to the market in the years that followed. There is currently rapid innovation in frills — new apps for iPhones, etc. — but nothing like the fundamental achievements of the special century. And in the U.S., there has been stagnation or decline in real wages for non-supervisory workers and in recent years, increased death rates among working-class, working-age whites, called “deaths of despair” by the economists who have documented these startling facts, Anne Case and Angus Deaton.
There is more to say about other societies. There are numerous complexities of major significance that disappear in unanalyzed statistical tables.
Realism, crystallized intellectually by Niccolò Machiavelli in The Prince,has been the guiding principle of nation-states behind their conduct of international relations from the beginning of the modem era, while idealism and morality have been seen as values best left to individuals. Is political realism driving us to the edge of the cliff? And, if so, what should replace the behavioral stance of governments in the 21st century?
The two major doctrines of International Relations Theory are Realism and Idealism. Each has their advocates, but it’s true that the Realists have dominated: the world’s a tough place, an anarchic system, and states maneuver to establish power and security, making coalitions, offshore balancing, etc.
I think we can put aside Idealism — though it has its advocates, including, curiously, one of the founders and leading figures of the modern tough-minded Realist school, Hans Morgenthau. In his 1960 work, The Purpose of American Politics, Morgenthau argued that the U.S., unlike other societies, has a “transcendent purpose”: establishing peace and freedom at home and indeed everywhere. A serious scholar, Morgenthau recognized that the historical record is radically inconsistent with the “transcendent purpose” of America, but he advised that we should not be misled by the apparent inconsistency. In his words, we should not “confound the abuse of reality with reality itself.” Reality is the unachieved “national purpose” revealed by “the evidence of history as our minds reflect it.” What actually happened is merely the “abuse of reality.” To confound abuse of reality with reality is akin to “the error of atheism, which denies the validity of religion on similar grounds.”
For the most part, however, realists adhere to Realism, without sentimentality. We might ask, however, how realistic Realism is. With a few exceptions — Kenneth Waltz for one — realists tend to ignore the roots of policy in the structure of domestic power, in which, of course, the corporate system is overwhelmingly dominant. This is not the place to review the matter, but I think it can be shown that much is lost by this stance. That’s true even of the core notion of Realism: security. True, states seek security, but for whom? For the general population? For the systems of power represented by the architects of policy? Such questions cannot be casually put aside.
The two existential crises we have discussed are a case in point. Does the government policy of maximization of the use of fossil fuels contribute to the security of the population? Or of ExxonMobil and its brethren. Does the current military posture of the U.S. — dismantling the INF Treatyinstead of negotiating disputes over violations, rushing ahead with hypersonic weapons instead of seeking to bar these insane weapons systems by treaty, and much else — contribute to the security of the population? Or to the component of the corporate manufacturing system in which the U.S. enjoys comparative advantage: destruction. Similar questions arise constantly.
What should replace the prevailing stance is government of, by and for the people, highlighting their concerns and needs.
The advent of globalization has been interpreted frequently enough in the recent past as leading to the erosion of the nation-state. Today, however, it is globalization that is being challenged, first and foremost by the resurgence of nationalism. Is there a case to be made in defense of globalization? And, by extension, is all nationalism bad and dangerous?
Globalization is neither good nor bad in itself. It depends how it is implemented. Enhancing opportunities for ideas, innovations, aesthetic contributions to disseminate freely is a welcome form of globalization, as well as opportunities for people to circulate freely. The WTO system, designed to set working people in competition with one another while protecting investor rights with an exorbitant patent regime and other devices, is a form of globalization that has many harmful consequences that would be avoided in authentic trade agreements designed along different lines — and it should be borne in mind that much of the substance of the “free trade agreements” is not about free trade or even trade in any meaningful sense.
Same with nationalism. In the hands of the Nazis, it was extremely dangerous. If it is a form of bonding and mutual support within some community it can be a valuable part of human life.
The current resurgence of nationalism is in large part a reaction to the harsh consequences of neoliberal globalization, with special features such as the erosion of democracy in Europe by transfer of decision-making to the unelected Troika with the northern banks looking over their shoulders. And it can and does take quite ugly forms — the worst, perhaps, the reaction to the so-called “refugee crisis” — more accurately termed a moral crisis of the West, as Pope Francis has indicated.
But none of this is inherent in globalization or nationalism.
In your critiques of U.S. foreign policy, you often refer to the United States as the world’s biggest terrorist state. Is there something unique about the United States as an imperial state? And is U.S. imperialism still alive and kicking?
The U.S. is unique in many respects. That includes the opening words of the Declaration of Independence, “We the People,” a revolutionary idea, however flawed in execution. It is also a rare country that has been at war almost without a break from its first moment. One of the motives for the American Revolution was to eliminate the barrier to expansion into “Indian country” imposed by the British. With that overcome, the new nation set forth on wars against the Indian nations that inhabited what became the national territory; wars of “extermination,” as the most prominent figures recognized, notably John Quincy Adams, the architect of Manifest Destiny. Meanwhile half of Mexico was conquered in what General U.S. Grant, later president, called one of the most “wicked wars” in history.
There is no need to review record of interventions, subversion and violence, particularly since World War II, which established the U.S. in a position of global dominance with no historical precedent. The record includes the worst crime of the postwar period, the assault on Indochina, and the worst crime of this millennium, the invasion of Iraq.
Like most terms of political discourse, “imperialism” is a contested notion. Whatever term we want to use, the U.S. is alone in having hundreds of military bases and troops operating over much of the world. It is also unique in its willingness and ability to impose brutal sanctions designed to punish the people of states designated as enemies. And its market power and dominance of the international financial system provide these sanctions with extraterritorial reach, compelling even powerful states to join in, however unwillingly.
The most dramatic case is Cuba, where U.S. sanctions are strongly opposed by the entire world, to no avail. The vote against these sanctions was 189-2, U.S. and Israel, in the latest UNGA [United Nations General Assembly] condemnation. The sanctions have been in place for almost 60 years, harshly punishing Cubans for what the State Department called “successful defiance” of the U.S. Trump’s sanctions on Venezuela have turned a humanitarian crisis into a catastrophe, according to the leading economist of the opposition, Francisco Rodriguez. His sanctions on Iran are quite explicitly designed to destroy the economy and punish the population.
This is no innovation. Clinton’s sanctions on Iraq (joined by Blair) were so destructive that each of the distinguished international diplomats who administered the “oil for food” program resigned in protest, charging that the sanctions were “genocidal.” The second, Hans-Christof von Sponeck, published a detailed and incisive book about the impact of the sanctions (A Different Kind of War). It has been under a virtual ban. Too revealing, perhaps.
The brutal sanctions punished the population and devastated the society, but strengthened the tyrant, compelling people to rely on his rationing system for survival, possibly saving him from overthrow from within, as happened to a string of similar figures. That’s quite standard. The same is reportedly true in Iran today.
It could be argued that the sanctions violate the Geneva Conventions, which condemn “collective punishment” as a war crime, but legalistic shenanigans can get around that.
The U.S. no longer has the capacity it once did to overthrow governments at will or to invade other countries, but it has ample means of coercion and domination, call it “imperialism” or not.
Why is the United States the only major country in the world displaying consistently an aversion to international human rights treaties, which include, among many others, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)?
The U.S. almost never ratifies international conventions, and in the few cases where it does, it is with reservations that exclude the U.S. That’s even true of the Genocide Convention, which the U.S. finally did ratify after many years, exempting itself. The issue arose in 1999, when Yugoslavia brought a charge of war crimes to the ICJ [International Court of Justice] against NATO. One of the charges was “genocide.” The U.S. therefore rejected World Court jurisdiction on the grounds that it was not subject to the Genocide Convention, and the Court agreed — agreeing, in effect, that the U.S. is entitled to carry out genocide with impunity.
It might be noted that the U.S. is currently alone (along with China and Taiwan) in rejecting a World Court decision, namely, the 1986 Court judgment ordering the U.S. to terminate its “unlawful use of force” against Nicaragua and to pay substantial reparations. Washington’s rejection of the Court decision was applauded by the liberal media on the grounds that the Court was a “hostile forum” (New York Times), so its decisions don’t matter. A few years earlier the Court had been a stern arbiter of Justice when it ruled in favor of the U.S. in a case against Iran.
The U.S. also has laws authorizing the executive to use force to “rescue” any American brought to the Hague — sometimes called in Europe “the Hague Invasion Act.” Recently it revoked the visa of the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC [International Criminal Court] for daring to consider inquiring into U.S. actions in Afghanistan. It goes on.
Why? It’s called “power,” and a population that tolerates it — and for the most part probably doesn’t even know about it.
Since the Nuremberg trials between 1945-49, the world has witnessed many war crimes and crimes against humanity that have gone unpunished, and interestingly enough, some of the big powers (U.S., China and Russia) have refused to support the International Criminal Court which, among others things, can prosecute individuals for war crimes. In that context, does the power to hold leaders responsible for unjust wars, crimes against humanity, and crimes of aggression hold promise in the international order of today?
That depends on whether states will accept jurisdiction. Sometimes they do. The NATO powers (except for the U.S.) accepted ICJ jurisdiction in the Yugoslavia case, for example — presumably because they took for granted that the Court would never accept the Yugoslavian pleas, even when they were valid, as in the case of the targeted destruction of a TV station, killing 16 journalists. In the more free and democratic states, populations could, in principle, decide that their governments should obey international law, but that is a matter of raising the level of civilization.
John Bolton and other ultranationalists, and many others, argue that the U.S. must not abandon its sovereignty to international institutions and international law. They are therefore arguing that U.S. leaders should violate the Constitution, which declares that valid treaties are the supreme law of the land. That includes in particular the UN Charter, the foundation of modern international law, established under U.S. auspices.
I use the extreme example of 10 to cut to the chase, get to the point.
With a low human population, human-caused climate change would not be a concern.
With a low human population, neither would habitat loss or any other of the current threats to the diversity of life on Earth.
It wouldn’t matter if every person in a low human population was the most rapacious sort of capitalist. They couldn’t make a dent. It wouldn’t matter if every one was socialist, communist, racist, atheist, Buddhist, Confucionist, Taoist, Christian, Jew, or Muslim. What packs the most clout is the sheer mass of the human population
This mass is the great hulking monster behind the threats to climate and biodiversity. And yet the growth of the human population has important sources of support. For the political leaders yearning for military might, it means bigger armies. For organized religion(s), it means bigger congregations. For the business world, it means more customers — and a labor supply abundant enough to make labor cheap. Over all this hangs a silence amounting to a near-universal taboo.
Everything I know or think I know persuades me that continuing on our present course will, sooner or later, plausibly beginning in the lifetime of children born since 1980, create conditions that will set off a severe and sharp culling of the human herd. But we’ll be bringing a lot down with us as we go, and we are already seeing all the evidence we need of that.
“Research suggests that the scale of human population and the current pace of its growth contribute substantially to the loss of biological diversity. Although technological change and unequal consumption inextricably mingle with demographic impacts on the environment, the needs of all human beings—especially for food—imply that projected population growth will undermine protection of the natural world.
“Numerous solutions have been proposed to boost food production while protecting biodiversity, but alone these proposals are unlikely to staunch biodiversity loss. An important approach to sustaining biodiversity and human well-being is through actions that can slow and eventually reverse population growth: investing in universal access to reproductive health services and contraceptive technologies, advancing women’s education, and achieving gender equality.”
Eileen Crist, Camilo Mora, Robert Engelman. The interaction of human population, food production, and biodiversity protection. Science 21 April 2017
“The individual scientist can survive for a long time by lying low in the valley of specialized intellectual interest … We in science must get up and face the wind, confront the future.”
William Bevan, “The Sound of the Wind That’s Blowing.”