(This is part 5 in the “Crisis and Inertia” series.)
In the first episode in this series I argued that societies and other social “objects” (cultures, beliefs, institutions, ideas, ideologies, and so forth) are as inert as physical objects. Social “objects” resist change – if they are moving in a certain direction, they resist a change in direction.
The second notion in the tile of this series is “crisis”. A crisis is an event that changes a social object’s momentum – that is, it’s path, speed, or direction. Crises come in several kinds. A minor crisis produces a (nearly?) immeasurably small change, while a major crisis leads to a substantial shift in the direction of a society (or other kind of social object). Obviously, these are two extremes on a scale with infinitely many gradations in between. The most major among major crisis is a terminal crisis: it doesn’t just change the momentum of a social object, but does so in such a radical way that the object itself is destroyed.
This series set out to identify some of the most important crises that humanity and human civilization are facing. The second article in the series focused on climate change; the third on a number of technological threats and crises such as artificial intelligence (AI), agricultural pollution, antibiotics, and nuclear weapons; and the fourth on economic, political, and cultural crises such as rising poverty, inequality, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, neo-fascism, and cultural psychopathy. That fourth episode concluded that there is an underlying single cause of not just those economic, political, and cultural crises, but of the climate crisis and most of the technology-related crises as well. That single cause is neoliberal capitalism. By implication, most of the crises discussed in this series can be captured under a single header: the crisis of neoliberal capitalism.
This fifth episode in this series will be the last – at least for now. There are two questions I want to try to answer (at least partially) here. The first concerns the nature of the crisis of neoliberal capitalism. It should be clear by now, that this is a major crisis and that this is mostly due to climate change. Most likely it is even a terminal crisis, but calling it such raises the question of what exactly it will terminate. The second question concerns the possibility of avoiding a terminal crisis by means of a major crisis. Recall that only a major crisis significantly changes the path of a social object. Consequently, if the path of a social object leads to a terminal crisis, and one wishes to avoid that, then a significant change in direction is necessary, and thus a major crisis.
The End of Stability
It is more or less standard practice in climate change forecasts – or at least in those that reach a wider audience – to limit forecasting to the current century.1 Forecasts may tell you what the situation might be like by 2050, 2075, or 2100, but don’t appear to look beyond the magical date of January 1st, 2100, suggesting that by 2100 a new stable situation will be achieved. Surviving until then – in a fortress or bunker, perhaps – is sufficient, and in 2100 everyone (or everyone’s (grand-) children) can go out their fortress/bunker and resume a normal life. This, unfortunately, is nonsense.
Environmental stability is a thing of the past. There won’t be a stable climate for thousands of years. Even in the best case scenario for thousands of years the parts of the Earth that are inhabitable and the parts that are not,2 and the parts that are hit by disasters and the parts that experience a period of relative rest and prosperity, will continue to change. Continuous mass migrations (including refugee flows) will be a consequence of this, as well as starvation and death due disaster and disease. The sooner we adapt to a world that will never be the same again and that will never remain the same (at least for several thousands of years), the better. Hiding behind fortified borders is not an adaptation, but an attempt to keep the effects of climate change out. It is, moreover, a doomed attempt. The fortresses will fall.
Climate science is a very active field with hundreds of new studies coming out every year. Since I posted the second article in this series, several new important studies have been published. There are two I want to mention here because they are directly relevant to the first question mentioned above – that is, the question of what exactly will be terminated by climate change. In What Lies Beneath, David Spratt and Ian Dunlop argue that for a number of reasons existential risks (to human civilization) of climate change are systematically underestimated.3 In their introduction they suggest that many people – and probably a majority of more informed people – expect an end of our way of life this century, and that most people remain sane by burying this behind a (feigned?) lack of understanding of the (precise) nature of our situation.4
A second noteworthy publication is “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene” by Will Steffen and 15 colleagues in which it is shown that unless we manage to steer a course for relative stability very soon, Earth will enter a path leading – in several millennia – to “hothouse” conditions.5, 6 They argue that:
social and technological trends and decisions occurring over the next decade or two could significantly influence the trajectory of the Earth System for tens to hundreds of thousands of years and potentially lead to conditions that resemble planetary states that were last seen several millions of years ago, conditions that would be inhospitable to current human societies and to many other contemporary species. (p. 2)
The challenge that humanity faces is to create a “Stabilized Earth” pathway that steers the Earth System away from its current trajectory toward the threshold beyond which is Hothouse Earth. The human-created Stabilized Earth pathway leads to a basin of attraction that is not likely to exist . . . without human stewardship to create and maintain it. Creating such a pathway . . . requires a fundamental change in the role of humans on the planet. (p. 3)
Doing nothing or not doing enough will inevitably result in passing tipping points which lay somewhere between 1°C and 3°C average global warming. Unfortunately, no one knows where exactly, but there is broad agreement among climate scientists that the key tipping points are somewhere in that range. Beyond those tipping points Earth (or the “Earth System” as the authors call it) enters a pathway towards conditions that are so hot that most life on Earth cannot survive. “This pathway would be propelled by strong, intrinsic, biophysical feedbacks difficult to influence by human actions, a pathway that could not be reversed, steered, or substantially slowed” (p. 6). In other words, if we pass those tipping points, there is nothing anymore that we can do, and most life on Earth – including human life – will go extinct.
The authors suggest that the tipping points are probably around 2°C, but offer no compelling reason to accept that guess. It might really be 1°C, or, if we are very lucky, 3°C. Again, no one knows, but we are gambling with extinction, so it may not be wise to assume that we are lucky.
The alternative to “Hothouse Earth” is “Stabilized Earth”, but Steffen and colleagues emphasize that “Stabilized Earth is not an intrinsic state of the Earth System but rather, one in which humanity commits to a pathway of ongoing management of its relationship with the rest of the Earth System” (p. 5). In other words, “Stabilized Earth” is not a natural situation, but one that requires maintenance and management by us (and it is not really “stable” either). Moreover, it requires very substantial changes in our lifestyles, cultures, economies, and so forth, and it requires those changes very soon. If we don’t steer for the relative stability of a “Stabilized Earth” very soon – that is, within a matter of years, not decades – we’re dead.7
The End of Civilization
Climate change is almost certainly a terminal crisis, but it is not exactly clear what it will terminate. In the extreme case, it will lead to human extinction (along with the extinction of most other species that inhabit our planet). This will be the end result of the Hothouse Earth scenario, unless some of us somehow manage to escape Earth and colonize some other planet. However, that would require the survival of a technology-supporting civilization, and most scenario’s that do not end with human extinction, do at least predict an end of civilization. That raises a question, however: What is this “civilization” that is supposed to end?
The concept of “civilization” was coined in the early 18th century in the French and Scottish Enlightenment. It came from Medieval Latin “civilitas”, which meant something like political community, humanity, citizenry, city life, and so forth. “Civilization” developed into one of the core notions of the Enlightenment and was “was used to refer to (1) the Enlightenment views of man and society; (2) to (a desirable stage in) the development of societies; and (3) as a comprehensive term for the Christian or Western world”.8 From there, the concept developed further. In the 19th century it became almost synonymous with “culture” in Anglophone anthropology, while the two concepts were often opposed in German thought, and older (variant) meanings also survived in other contexts and communities. Because of this, “civilization” is a somewhat muddled concept. Nevertheless, there are relatively clear strands in the concept’s (or concepts’) development, and in a given context not every possible interpretation of the concept is equally appropriate (or relevant).
In the present context, a narrow interpretation of “civilization” would be the current stage of Western civilization – that is, a particular combination of neoliberal capitalism, something like Christian (or Christian-based) morality, legal systems and notions derived from Roman and later European history and philosophy, Western science and technology, and so forth.9 This notion of “civilization” – let’s call it “modern Western civilization” – can be broadened in two ways. Firstly, the “modern” aspect can be dropped – “civilization” then becomes “Western civilization”, and the survival of civilization is then the survival of the peoples, cultures, political systems, and so forth of the Western world. Secondly, the emphasis can shift from “Western” to “modern”. “Civilization” then refers to the current social, political, and economic world system. It still includes neoliberal capitalism, Western science and technology, and so forth, but it is less restricted to the West. Nevertheless, survival of civilization in that interpretation also means the survival of certain aspects of Western culture and ideology (or Western cultural hegemony); it means the survival of neoliberal capitalism, of Western science and technology, of Western social and political ideas (such as democracy), and so forth. Let’s call this third notion “modern civilization”.
These are not the kinds of civilization that I’m interested in, but let’s ignore that for now and focus on their chances of survival. Modern civilization is already collapsing. Growing inequality, continuous economic crisis, the rise of the “precariat”, neo-fascism, authoritarianism and the undermining of (whatever is left of) democracy, and so forth imply that the ideological basis of modern civilization is crumbling. Western civilization (in the narrow sense) is set on a path towards the “armed lifeboat” strategy (see episode 2 in this series).10 The Western world is developing itself into fortresses that try to keep refugees, chaos, and climate disaster outside their walls, and that simultaneously turn to repression, surveillance, and authoritarianism to control the population within their walls. The armed lifeboat strategy is a betrayal of everything civilization once stood for – it is the death of “modern civilization” (and thus also of “modern Western civilization”). But it will also ultimately destroy Western civilization itself. No fortress can withstand refugee flows when they reach hundreds of millions. No fortress can withstand a continuous barrage of natural disasters. The fortresses will fall, and Western/modern civilization will fall with them.
There is another understanding of civilization that is closer to its use in the Enlightenment as a slogan of progress, but that has much older roots. Civilization in this sense is the universal project of reducing human suffering due to disease, hunger, and violence. Civilization in this sense includes peace, order, safety, medicine, agriculture, industry, education, science, philosophy, and so forth, regardless of their region of origin. Civilization in this sense is both a process and a stage therein. As a stage, “civilization” contrasts with a state of disorder, a state of war, famine, epidemics, and so forth. To say that civilization could end in this understanding of “civilization” is to say that we could return to such a state of (civil) war, famine, diseases, … – to a state of widespread suffering, social collapse, and death.
It is the collapse in civilization in this sense that I fear. I don’t particularly care about Western civilization because I’m not a racist or Western supremacist, and I don’t care about modern civilization because neoliberal capitalism got us in this mess in the first place, but I do care about the human project to reduce suffering. Consequently, I don’t think that the question whether Western/modern civilization can survive is important (and the answer is negative anyway). What matters is whether the crises we are facing constitute a terminal crisis for civilization in this much broader sense: Will civilization – as the human project to reduce suffering – end? And – much more importantly – can such a terminal crisis be avoided?
A few readers of the episode on climate change in this series commented (by means of private messages) that I didn’t pay sufficient attention to what they considered the most important issue: the survival of mankind. This wasn’t an oversight, however – I don’t think that the survival of mankind is that important. The survival of (something like) civilization (in the broad sense of the previous two paragraphs) far outweighs the survival of mankind. If the human species can somehow survive in a world in which suffering, disease, and violence are the norm, and in which there is little chance of rebuilding anything like civilization due to climatological and other circumstances, we’re better of dead. Extinction is better than massive suffering. I suspect that some – perhaps even many – people will disagree with me on this point because many people seem to be rather attached to the human species. (Perhaps this is some kind of remnant of the Christian belief in humanity as the crown of creation and similar ideas in other religions.) I don’t believe that the human species is worth “saving” at all costs, so I won’t say anything about possible strategies to achieve that in this article. Instead, I’ll focus on the much more important question of whether civilization (again, in the broad sense) or something sufficiently like it can somehow survive.
Speeding towards the Abyss
In the first episode in this series I used the metaphor of a tomato shot out of a cannon to explain inertia and crises (i.e. changes in momentum), but while a tomato flying at gunshot speed towards a wall may be a decent metaphor to illustrate the nature of a terminal crisis in general, it is not a very good metaphor to explain the nature of the climate crisis specifically. Towards that end I’ll borrow a much more appropriate metaphor from a friend.
Imagine that you are in a train. It’s running at full speed towards a ravine. Perhaps there used to be bridge there, but something happened and now there’s just an abyss. The train cannot change direction because it is limited by its track. It can try to stop, but by the time the train driver realizes that there is no bridge it’s too late – the train will slow down if the driver applies the brakes, but not enough to come to a full stop before the ravine, and the whole train will tumble into the depths killing everyone on board. You can, of course, try to jump off the train, but jumping off a speeding train will kill you, so that won’t help either. So it appears that there is nothing you can do – you’re going to die with everyone else when the train hits the bottom of the abyss (or before that if you decide to jump off the train).
We – humanity that is, and much of life on Earth in general – are speeding towards the abyss. If we act fast, we may be able to prevent Hothouse Earth. That would probably be a good thing, as we cannot survive in Hothouse conditions, and neither can most other Earthly creatures. Hothouse Earth is a mass extinction scenario. But even if we manage to avoid Hothouse Earth, the alternative is no real stability. Stability is a thing of the past. Droughts, super-storms, and other extreme weather events will continue to cause disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over scarce resources.
Hypothetically, it might be possible to return to a stable climate within a matter of centuries if we manage to significantly reduce CO₂ levels in the atmosphere, but we cannot do that now, and if civilization collapses we will never learn to do that either. Geo-engineering is not an option.11 Technology cannot save us. Nevertheless, it might be able to help us reach the relative safety of the Stabilized Earth scenario, but again, even that scenario offers no real stability, and no return to the conditions that we are used to.
Let’s return to the train. Everything on this train, except for the train itself, is wind-powered. There are generators on the roof of the train that produce electricity when the train is running. But the train has to run at close-to-maximum speed for these generators to work efficiently. The generators are owned by a small clique of businessmen. They sell the electricity to everyone else. When these businessmen learn of the abyss ahead, they first deny that there is no bridge and claim that there is nothing to worry about, but soon they realize that they don’t even need that denial. They are the ones who pay the driver, and nearly anyone is addicted to the electricity they supply. No one is going to stop the train. They certainly won’t stop the train themselves. Instead, they invest some of their profits in padded rooms in the last car, hoping that the padding will help them survive the crash.
No one is going to stop our “train”. We continue speeding to the abyss because the current economic and political system doesn’t allow us to stop. We continue speeding to the abyss because neoliberal capitalism forces us onward at full speed, and because it managed to make almost everyone believe that “there is no alternative” (to neoliberal capitalism). The train won’t stop because the vast majority of its passengers don’t really want it to stop, don’t believe that it really can stop, and/or bury their realization that it needs to stop behind layers of (feigned) ignorance and denial.
The current economic system – neoliberal capitalism – is responsible for climate change, but also for most of the other crises we are facing. However, neoliberal capitalism has become “hegemonic”, meaning that it has managed to protect itself by convincing people that it is natural and that there is no alternative, and by changing people’s attitudes, mindsets, and values. (This is not some kind of conspiracy, by the way, but a more or less natural process.12) “The present dominant socioeconomic system . . . is based on high-carbon economic growth and exploitative resource use,” write the authors of the Hothouse Earth paper, and “widespread, rapid, and fundamental transformations will likely be required to reduce the risk of crossing the threshold and locking into the Hothouse Earth pathway”.13 The problem is that neoliberalism – because it is hegemonic – will not allow such change. We are already locked into the Hothouse Earth pathway because we are locked into neoliberal capitalism.
Unless we manage to derail the train.
Let’s say that we can do that, that we can derail the train – then, Should we? This is not an easy question, nor does it have an obvious answer. Remember that the train is running at full speed. Derailing a speeding train will kill and injure a substantial part of its passengers (but probably not all of them). The alternative, of course, is that they (i.e. we) all die when the train hits the bottom of the abyss, but if someone would manage to derail the train she would be responsible for the deaths and injuries resulting from that derailment while she would not be responsible for the extinction resulting from the fall into the ravine. Or at least, that is what some moral philosophers would argue.
I’ll just ignore the moral question here, because even if I had an answer to this question, I might not want to share it. So instead, I’ll focus on the other obvious question: Can we actually derail this speeding train (and thereby prevent it from going over the edge)?
Varieties of Utopianism
There may be comfort in dreaming of ideal worlds, but aside from providing such comfort Utopianism – sketching ideal scenarios without taking what’s really possible into account – is of little use. There are several kinds or levels of Utopianism in the context of climate change and its prevention, and all of them are better avoided. (Not in the least because some of them are really Dystopian.)
The most radical version of Utopianism is dreaming of a world in which dangerous climate change is prevented or climate change does not occur at all because it employs a fundamentally different social, economic, and political system. This might be some kind of socialist, anarchist, or primitivist Utopia, or something else entirely, but regardless of its details, it is fundamentally Utopian and impossible to realize. (Closely related to this kind of Utopanism is the Romantic post-catastophic Utopianism of dreaming of a new and better world after the climate-change catastrophe destroyed the current one. What such dreamers fail to realize is that climate change is not a short phase but will lead to millennia of instability that are extremely hostile to any kind of Utopian or even half-decent civilization.)
A second kind of Utopianism is dreaming of the policies that should be implemented now to avoid dangerous climate change: an immediate switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy; abandoning plastics and pesticides; significantly reducing the use of fertilizers and antibiotics; and so forth. This is still a form of Utopianism because such a sudden and drastic change – even though it may very well be necessary – is politically impossible. What most governments have been willing to commit to is laughably inadequate. A non-enforcable promise to try to keep CO₂ levels below a level that is much too high anyway without actually doing anything is apparently the best that politicians and governments can do. As long as the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism (or the hegemony of psychopathy – that is the same thing) prevents the worldwide implementation of any effective climate policy, drafting such policies is an Utopian waste of time. (And by implication, if you want real climate policy, you’ll have to start with a revolution.)
A third level of Utopianism is the idea of adaptation to climate change without making fundamental changes. This kind of Utopianism tends to focus on local “solutions” such as urban gardening and other ways to cool down cities and various (other) kinds of technological adaptations. It is important to realize, however, that such proposals are – and can only be – part of the aforementioned “armed lifeboat” strategy. The idea is to make global warming bearable in the cities of the rich Western world, while simultaneously preventing the victims of the worst effects of climate change (i.e. people from poorer countries) to enter those cities (or any other part of the countries around them). But the armed lifeboat strategy is itself Utopian (or actually Dystopian). It is impossible to keep refugees out if their numbers are in the tens or hundreds of millions (rather than mere tens or hundreds of thousands as they are now) and they will reach such numbers within decades, and it is impossible to build a fortress that is impenetrable to natural disaster. No fortress can withstand the pressure that will be created by climate change and its secondary disasters (refugee flows, armed conflict, etc.).
The armed lifeboat strategy is Utopian because it is an attempt to avoid necessary change, an attempt to keep the effects of climate change out as much (and as long) as possible. It is Utopian because it is insufficient – a fortress is not a shelter and doesn’t protect you from death if the whole world around you is dying. And a fortress or lifeboat cannot prevent the latter because without worldwide change Hothouse Earth is inevitable. The armed lifeboat strategy is Utopian because the lifeboat will inevitably sink. And the longer the lifeboat depends on brute force and feigned blindness for the suffering of outsiders to isolate itself from the sea of chaos around it, the deeper that sea gets, and the deeper it will sink. The armed lifeboat strategy is Dystopian because it involves neo-fascist repression at home and a callous disregard for suffering abroad.
The armed lifeboat may be the most harmfully deceptive of all Utopianisms. It feeds on inertia, conservatism, nationalism, and related sentiments and phenomena, offering the re-assuring illusion that things will mostly stay the same, that minor adaptations will be sufficient to keep the chaos (as well as the “others” – refugees, foreigners, etc.) outside, that life – at least for “us” – will continue as normal. But all of that is (self-) deception. The armed lifeboat (or fortress) strategy cannot prevent Hothouse Earth, and cannot stay afloat forever in an increasingly hostile environment. The lifeboat will sink, and the sooner it sinks the better, because only if the sea of chaos around it is still shallow is there a chance of a different path. Sinking the lifeboat, therefore, is in the interest of the people inside it because for them too, sinking the lifeboat offers the only chance of (long-term) survival.
A fourth level of Utopianism is dreaming of a way to gently derail the train.14 There is no such thing. Derailing the speeding train is a bloody and murderous act. (Perhaps, the only thing more bloody and murderous than derailing the train is not derailing it.) It is obvious that derailing a real train would be violent and bloody, but the same is true for derailing this metaphorical train. Derailing that train would involve, among others, a very rapid and complete halt to atmospheric CO₂ increases, which is only possible by ceasing the burning of fossil fuels as well as significant changes to agriculture. This, however, would cause several serious problems. The production and distribution of food, as well as many other industries, depend on fossil fuels, and therefore, a rapid ceasing of fossil fuel burning would lead to de-industrialization and probably also de-urbanization (because it would be impossible to get enough food to large cities). Something like that has been tried before.
After the second World War, Germany was subjected to the Morgenthau Plan, which called for the de-industrialization and de-urbanization of Germany to change it into a peaceful and harmless agricultural nation. Former American president Hebert Hoover visited Germany in 1947 and reported: “There is the illusion that the New Germany . . . can be reduced to a ‘pastoral state’. It cannot be done unless we exterminate or move 25.000.000 out of it.” In response to this report, the US abandoned the Morgenthau plan and replaced it with the Marshall Plan, which had more or less the opposite objectives: industrialization and economic growth.15
The point of this anecdote is that current global population levels can only be sustained through industrialization and urbanization. Reverse the latter and the food supply collapses. A de-industrialized world cannot feed the current world population, and consequently, a rapid ceasing of the use of fossil fuels would lead to widespread famines, unimaginable poverty and suffering, and death. It is for this reason that I called derailing the train a bloody and murderous act. Keeping that in mind, let’s return to the question whether it is actually possible to derail the train.
The Possibility of Overwhelming Force
F=ma. The force needed to change an object’s momentum equals the product of its mass and the extent of change desired. The force needed to derail the train must overcome the forces that keep it in its track. The force needed to derail the train must overwhelm the mechanisms and institutions that protect the status quo. Is that even possible? Is it possible to gather and exert such overwhelming force?
Before considering that, let’s try to get some further clarity about what it would mean and require to derail the train. One aspect of derailment that was already mentioned above is a rapid and complete halt to atmospheric CO₂ increases, but that is not sufficient, and it is, furthermore, a necessary outcome of derailment more than a requirement. Derailment would require shutting down or overpowering the mechanisms that keep the train in its track. These are the instruments of hegemony: the mass media and much of the rest of the press, the financial sector and its ideologues (i.e. mainstream economists), governments (or at least some branches thereof), armed forces (including the police), border guards (and other mechanism to keep outsiders out), and so forth. And derailment would require shutting down many of the largest emitters of CO₂ by disrupting the import, production, distribution, and use of fossil fuels, as well as by other means. Anything less than this is not a derailment, but merely a small bump that will be taken care of by the train’s “automatic stabilizers” (that is, the forces of hegemony) without significantly affecting its high-speed journey towards the abyss.
There are several reasons to be skeptical about the possibility of derailing the train (or sinking the lifeboat). Firstly, it would almost certainly require a large movement, but it is unlikely that such a movement can be built. The forces of hegemony protect the status quo, and as mentioned, these forces include the state, the mainstream press, and “common sense”. The state will protect the status quo by force and will criminalize and hunt down any movement that tries to bring about radical change (assuming that there are no legal means to bring about sufficiently radical change). The mainstream press depicts any real opposition to the status quo as dangerous and/or insane. And “common sense” consists mostly of values and beliefs that similarly discredit real opposition or dissent, that support the status quo, and that serve the interests of the ruling elite. “Common sense” is just another word for “ideology”, the body of widely shared beliefs that serve the interests of the ruling class and that gained dominance thanks to the status and influence of that ruling class.
Secondly, the status quo is protected by police, army, border guards, immigration service, bureaucrats, employers, and a host of other institutions. Let’s call these collective protectors of the status quo the Palace Guards as that is their main function – guarding the palaces or fortresses of wealth and privilege. The Palace Guards will hunt down and imprison (or even kill) anyone they perceive to be a threat to the status quo (because that is their very purpose). And therefore, any act that does not overwhelm the Palace Guards will only lead to the immediate arrest and effective elimination of the actors. Any movement that aims to overwhelm the Palace Guards will be infiltrated, hunted down, and destroyed. And any preparation to overwhelm the Palace Guards will be thwarted.
Thirdly, overwhelming force must not just overwhelm the Palace Guards, but all stabilizing mechanisms that keep the train in its track (or the lifeboat afloat). To have any chance of success the disruption of the status quo must reach such an extent that it is too much to handle. The chaos must be so great that the powers of hegemony cannot get the train back on track.
In other words, what would be needed to derail the train is to exert a force upon it that lacks support (of a movement), that remains undetected (until it hits), and that overwhelms all stabilizing forces. This cannot be done.
But perhaps, just perhaps, it is possible to create some of the conditions that would make it possible. The more “bumps” there are, the more occupied the train’s “automatic stabilizers”, and the less attention they can pay to the creation of new bumps. And perhaps these bumps slow down the train just enough to create a big bump. I doubt that there is any real chance of success, however, because any danger to the status quo perceived by the forces of hegemony will only reinforce the turn towards neo-fascist repression and increase the mainstream press’s hysterical denouncement of “dangerous” radicals.
Sinking the Lifeboat
In some sense, it might be possible to sink the lifeboat without derailing the train, however, which means that we should divorce the two metaphors. (And perhaps, sinking the lifeboat could be a step towards derailing the train.) Recall that the armed lifeboat strategy consists of two components: a fortified outer boundary to keep outsiders (i.e. refugees) out, and totalitarian repression and surveillance inside the fortress to keep the elites safe. It might be easier to obstruct either or both of these than to derail the train. Opening borders, helping refugees, and disrupting the surveillance state in any way available may help sink the lifeboat (or weaken it, at least). (And of course, there are plenty of humanitarian reasons to open the borders and help refugees as well.)
Divorcing the two metaphors also makes a partial answer to the moral question easier. Even if it is too difficult to decide whether the train should be derailed or not, there is little similar difficulty when it comes to the armed lifeboat. The lifeboat must sink. The armed lifeboat is fascist and totalitarian and will produce nothing but suffering both inside and outside. The armed lifeboat is an attempt to keep refugees outside, while those refugees are fleeing climate disaster and economic disaster both of which are largely the result of actions by occupants of the lifeboat. And if that is not enough reason, even a selfish occupant of the lifeboat should want to sink it. Only by gradually getting used to ever-growing refugee flows and other forms of instability can countries and societies adapt. Building walls is not an adaptation but a refusal to adapt, and that refusal will result in utter chaos when the walls fall.
The rich countries of the industrial world should welcome refugees – not just for humanitarian reasons, but also for selfish reasons, to allow them to adapt (to ever-growing refugee flows as well as other kinds of instability), to prevent fascism, to change. But they won’t do so willingly. Forcing the borders open may not be enough to save civilization (or even humanity) from extinction, but it is a first step, and even if it fails to save us, at least we’ll go without causing unnecessary additional suffering.
Part 1 (introduction)
Part 2 – Climate Change
Part 3 – Technological Threats and Crises
Part 4 – Economic, Political, and Cultural Crises
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- In the scientific literature this arbitrary limit of the year 2100 is less common. Presumably, the focus on just this century is a political compromise by the IPCC, which remains the authority in all climate-change-related matters in the eyes of the mainstream press.
- This is, of course, assuming that there still will be parts that are inhabitable. That assumption is debatable, however. See below.
- David Spratt & Ian Dunlop (2018). What Lies Beneath: The Understatement of Existential Climate Risk (Melbourne: Breakthrough).
- I expect to return to the latter issue (i.e. that of remaining sane) in some future post.
- Will Steffen et al. (2018). “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) (advance publication).
- The term “hothouse” is badly chosen in this context, by the way. It is often understood as referring to runaway climate change leading to either a “baked crust” planet like Venus or a moist and extremely hot greenhouse. Reading the paper, it becomes clear that the authors don’t mean anything as extreme as that, but what they do mean with “hothouse” is still quite lethal for much life on Earth and would make human extinction a distinct possibility. See, for example, the quote following this paragraph.
- And considering that, as mentioned in the second episode in this series, few climate scientists still believe that we can keep global warming below 2°C this century, it may even be the case that it is too late already, and that humanity, and much of the rest of life on Earth, is doomed already.
- Lajos Brons (2005). Rethinking the Culture – Economy Dialectic (PhD Thesis, University of Groningen), p. 95.
- And in especially narrow interpretations even a racial identity.
- “There is a real risk that strong states with developed economies will succumb to a politics of xenophobia, racism, police repression, surveillance, and militarism and thus transform themselves into fortress societies while the rest of the world slips into collapse. By that course, developed economies would turn into neofascist islands of relative stability in a sea of chaos. But a world in climatological collapse – marked by hunger, disease, criminality, fanaticism, and violent social breakdown – will overwhelm the armed lifeboat. Eventually, all will sink in the same morass.” Christian Parenti (2011). Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (Nation Books), p. 20.
- See the last section of the episode on technology.
- See the previous episode in this series as well as: Lajos Brons (2017). The Hegemony of Psychopathy (Santa Barbara: Brainstorm).
- Will Steffen et al. “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene”, p. 5 and p. 6.
- I’m guilty of something like this kind of Utopianism in my little book The Hegemony of Psychopathy.
- This is apparently one of Erik Reinert’s favorite anecdotes since it appears in very many of his writings. For a rather interesting example, see: Erik Reinert (2004). “Globalization in the Periphery as a Morgenthau Plan: The Underdevelopment of Mongolia in the 1990s”, in Reinert (ed.), Globalization, Economic Development and Inequality: An Alternative Perspective (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar): 157-214. In this paper Reinert explains the effects of the Morgenthau plan that was forced upon Mongolia, leading to a collapse of its manufacturing industry followed by de-urbanization, overgrazing, cattle-death, hunger, and poverty.