(This is part 3 in the No Time for Utopia series.)
In On the Fragility of Civilization, I argued that due to the slowly compounding effects of an increasing number of relatively localized “natural” disasters caused (directly or indirectly) by climate change, a vicious circle of failing disaster management, economic decline, civil unrest, and hunger will trigger a cascade of collapsing societies, eventually leading to global societal collapse in roughly 25 to 30 years from now (give or take a half decade). The world during and after collapse will be very different from what most of us have ever experienced, or from what any of us would like to experience. On the road to collapse, widespread famine will kill billions, and the violent struggle for survival during and after collapse will further devastate food production, leading to even more hunger. Without global trade most areas won’t have the fossil fuels needed to run power plants, factories, and transportation networks, and virtually all modern technology will be useless. Natural disasters will pound many areas again and again. It will be a hotter, mostly drier, and very hostile world in which the rich might still be safe for a short while in their air-conditioned fortresses,1 but in which ultimately everything will give way to continuous human-made disaster in conditions that make the Mad Max movie series look like a fairy-tale. Live after collapse will be “poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.2
I’m assuming that we’d want to avoid that, or – if avoiding collapse is impossible – that we’d want to minimize the suffering involved and maximize the chance of some kind of recovery in the decades (or centuries) following it. This article aims to answer the question what is necessary to avoid or alleviate collapse. Because what is necessary to avoid collapse is pretty much the same as what is necessary to minimize the suffering and maximize the chance of recovery, a failure to completely implement what is necessary to avoid collapse will still make collapse more bearable. But “bearable” is a relative term, of course. It is more bearable than collapse as sketched in the previous paragraph, but it is far from Utopian. It is, however, the Lesser Dystopia. The choice is between that Lesser Dystopia and the Mad-Maxian Greater Dystopia of global societal collapse.
Any serious answer to a question needs some principle or principles to guide that answer and the process of finding it. So let me start by introducing the principles that guided this attempt to figure out what is necessary to avoid or alleviate collapse.
(1) The question is purely about what is necessary, and not about what is sociopolitically possible or what is morally right. If some necessary policy is immoral from some point of view, or impossible to implement for some sociopolitical reason, then that might be a problem, but that problem is outside the scope of this article. I will discuss some aspects of the morality and effective possibility of (implementing) the Lesser Dystopia in planned future chapters in this series, but I think that many moral questions are moot. If your moral beliefs prevent you from accepting a policy that is necessary to avoid the massive suffering involved in global societal collapse then your moral beliefs are the problem, not that policy.
(2) An answer cannot depend on ideal theory and other kinds of idealizations. It must be as realistic as possible, and based on accepted, empirical science as much as possible. This, of course, is a guiding principle of the No Time for Utopia series as a whole. The rejection of ideal theory and Utopian thinking is further explained in the series’ first chapter.
(3) An answer cannot depend on technology that might be developed in the coming decades (if we’re lucky).3 As David Wallace-Wells aptly remarked, technologically progress is “deceptively slow”, while climate change is “unnervingly fast”.4 There is too much at stake to gamble on what might be possible. Technological solutions must be available now, or – with a very high degree of certainty – known to be available soon. Furthermore, for a technology to be “available” it must not just be possible in principle, but it must be possible to implement it at the required scale. (If a technology requires more resources than available, for example, then that technology is effectively useless and thus not “available” in this sense.)
(4) An answer cannot be (or imply) a mere postponement of collapse (or of some of its worst effects). The aim is either to avoid collapse, or to alleviate and facilitate recovery, but not in such a way that the threat of collapse returns decades (or even a century) later.
In addition to these general principles, a few more substantial principles can be inferred from the previous chapter in this series, On the Fragility of Civilization. It was argued therein that refugees and economic decline play central roles in cascades and feedback loops leading to (and spreading) collapse. Consequently, the management of refugee flows and economic insecurity – especially related to food – must be in the focus of attention. And it cannot be emphasized enough that these issues need to be treated realistically as well. Walls and fences to keep refugees out – which currently seems to be the dominant Western response to the growing refugee problem – are not a realistic “solution”, for example. Walls and fences cannot possibly work when the number of refugees reaches tens or even hundreds of millions (and they will reach such numbers in a few decades). Then, the choice is not between keeping refugees out or letting them in, but between providing food and shelter voluntarily, or to have it taken from you and succumb to civil war.
Finally, there is one more “guiding principle” that is closely related to refugees and food (in)security as well as the aforementioned fourth principle that rejects a mere postponement of collapse: we have to reduce net CO₂ emissions to (practically) zero very soon (that is, within one or one-and-a-half decade at most, and preferably sooner than latter). The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C or between 2°C and 2.5°C may seem tiny, but that “tiny” difference has very big consequences. The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C, for example, corresponds to exposing 18% or 24% of the world population to aridification (i.e. severe drought).5 And that is just one, relatively short term effect. The more we heat up the planet, the less people can inhabit it – some parts will become uninhabitable due to heatwaves or drought, but most important is that heating decreases both land available for agriculture and crop productivity. Very roughly, half a degree more heating means a billion less people.
Furthermore, if global warming isn’t halted very soon, the effects will be so great that nothing we can do will prevent or even substantially alleviate collapse. At 3°C of warming, for example, the parts of the planet that become uninhabitable due to heatwaves or drought will cover an area so large that half the world population is given the choice to flee or stay and die. Refugee flows in such a scenario cannot possibly be managed, and the whole world will collapse in chaos, hunger, and war. So we need to stop releasing CO₂ into the atmosphere. Not in 20 or 30 years, but as soon as possible (and preferably sooner than possible).
All life depends on energy, but there are vast differences in the energy consumption required to sustain particular forms and styles of life. Our life style – or that of most of us in rich, industrialized countries, at least – depends on the consumption of enormous quantities of energy, and almost all of that is provided by fossil fuels. (Note that “energy” here refers to electricity, the fuel in our cars, and all other energy we use that is not provided by our bodies themselves.) With the aforementioned principles in mind, this gives us three options: (1) continue burning fossil fuels and capture and store the CO₂,6 (2) switch to alternative sources of energy, and (3) reduce energy use. These options are not mutually exclusive, so they can (and probably have to) be combined. Let’s look into all three in turn.
carbon capture and magic
“Carbon capture”, capturing carbon from the atmosphere or the exhaust gases of power plants and machines, is technically possible, but as explained above (see guiding principle number 3), technical possibility is insufficient. Carbon can be captured from the atmosphere by means of big plants (“plants” here in the sense of power plants and factories; not trees and herbs, although those also capture carbon of course) or relatively small and cheap machines, comparable in size, complexity, and costs to a car. We’d need about 20 thousand of the big plants or 100 million of the cheaper machines to match our current CO₂ emissions, but as those keep growing and we should really reduce CO₂ in the atmosphere, we’ll really need many more.7 But let’s say that we need those 20 thousand plants or 100 million machines in 10 years, and continue building them after that at the same pace until there are enough. Can we do that?
The big plants are comparable in costs and complexity to power plants. We’d have to finish 5 per day, every day (including the weekends) for the next 10 years. Even if we could afford that, it is practically impossible. Furthermore, there would be huge resource problems – in addition to building materials, these plants would also need lots of energy and “unimaginable amounts of water”8 to run. The second option – that of smaller, cheaper machines – looks a lot better. Currently, almost 100 million cars and other motor vehicles are produced every year, so if half the automotive industry switches to manufacturing these devices we should be able to reach the required number in 10 years. The costs would be immense – somewhere around 30 trillion US dollars9 – and funding that would be difficult (especially considering that we’re going to need money for lots of other adaptations and for disaster and refugee management), but perhaps it can be done. Gathering the necessary material resources may also be hard, but probably not impossible. What we cannot do, however, is bend the laws of physics.
Burning fossil fuels produces energy and CO₂.10 Let’s say that the amount of energy produced for one unit of CO₂ is X. Capturing that CO₂ from the atmosphere also costs energy. Let’s say that the amount of energy required to capture one unit of CO₂ is Y. Now, the problem is that Y is greater than X. Not because the state of our technology, but for much more fundamental reasons: the laws of thermodynamics make it the case that it necessarily costs more energy to capture one unit of CO₂ than to produce it. If we could violate that law of nature, we’d create something like a perpetuum mobile, but that just cannot be done. It is for reasons like this that many scientists consider carbon capture and other “negative emission” technologies “magical thinking”.11
Let’s consider the practical consequences of this. Assume that we have produced these 100 million machines in 10 years from now. Where is the energy to run those machines coming from? Remember that it requires more energy to capture CO₂ than to produce it, so the total amount of energy those 100 million machines need to run is larger than the total amount of energy produced in the processes that lead to those CO₂ emissions in the first place. Obviously, we cannot just build more coal plants to run our carbon capture machines, because then we would need more carbon capture machines to capture the CO₂ emitted by those extra coal plants. And so forth. But if we run our carbon capture machines on alternative energy sources such as solar and nuclear power, then our total alternative energy production would have to be larger than the total energy production by means of fossil fuels.
To make this even simpler: assume that you have a small diesel power generator to provide electricity for your house. You also have a miniature carbon capture machine that captures an amount of CO₂ from the atmosphere equal to what your diesel generator produces. And you have solar cells on your roof to provide the electricity for that carbon capture machine. Now, because of the laws of thermodynamics, the amount of electricity produced by those solar sells on your roof (to run the carbon capture machine) is larger than the amount of electricity produced by the diesel generator (to provide electricity in your house). Then, why did you even need that diesel generator in the first place?
Like many proposed “solutions” to the climate crisis, carbon capture only appears to work if you take a narrow view and ignore half the relevant facts. We may be able – in principle – to capture CO₂ from the atmosphere, but carbon capture cannot possibly be an excuse to continue burning fossil fuels. To believe it can be is to disregard physics and to believe in magic.
Nevertheless, we should invest in solar or nuclear-powered carbon capture technology to reduce CO₂ in the atmosphere. Not as an excuse to continue emitting, but in addition to a complete cessation of CO₂ emissions. To avert disasters (as much as possible) we must decrease atmospheric CO₂. Of course, carbon capture machines are not the only way to do that – forest and other natural methods are probably more important12 – but it is unlikely that we can bring down atmospheric CO₂ to acceptable levels without technological means.
If carbon capture is “magical thinking” and, consequently, we need to stop burning fossil fuels, can we provide the energy we need by other means? Again, the answer from a purely technological point of view is “yes”, but a less narrow view reveals some complications.
There are roughly four kinds of limitations with regards to potential sources of energy. The first is purely technological. At the current state of technology, nuclear fusion is not a realistic option yet, for example. The second is economical: some ways of producing energy are more expensive than others, and some may be too expensive. The third and fourth are somewhat similar to the second in that they also focus on limitations with regards to “inputs”. The third limitation concerns “energy returned on energy invested” or EROI. At an EROI of 10:1 for every 10 units of energy produced, 1 unit of energy must be invested.13 The fourth limitation concerns resources, both as inputs in the energy production process and resources needed to manufacture the necessary equipment and infrastructure. These four limitations aren’t independent from each other, of course. Decreasing EROI may make a technology economically nonviable, for example, and technological innovation may change resource requirements.
Charles Hall and Kent Klitgaard argue that a technology needs to have an EROI of at least 10:1 to be viable as a major source of energy.14 Technologies with lower EROIs may contribute to energy production, but those contributions will be small, and are – because of these limitations – very hard to increase. Only fossil fuels and nuclear energy have EROIs over 10:1 and both are decreasing. There still are vast fossil fuel resources stored in the Earth’s crust, but winning them is becoming increasingly difficult – that is, it costs more and more energy (i.e. fuel) and money to get to that fuel. Because of this, fossil fuels are slowly (!) becoming uneconomical. If we want to avoid sending the Earth back to the stone age (or worse) we cannot wait until fossil fuels become uneconomical, however, and we have to stop burning them now, so let’s look at the alternatives.
Only nuclear power has an EROI that is high enough, but it is unlikely that nuclear power can replace fossil fuels as our main source of energy at current levels of energy use. We would need somewhere between 15 and 30 thousand new nuclear power plants for that (in addition to the approximately 400 that are running now). So, if we want to switch from fossil fuels to nuclear power in 10 years, we need to finish four new nuclear plants per day for the coming decade. Unfortunately, the number of nuclear plants that is scheduled for decommissioning is currently larger than the number of planned new plants.
Furthermore, even if it would be feasible to build this many new nuclear power plants in the coming decade, we might wonder whether we should. In the past decades there have been some major nuclear accidents: Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima. With 50 times as many (or more) nuclear power plants (that were, moreover, built in a hurry) one should expect a 50-fold increase in major nuclear accidents as well. Or to put it bluntly, the costs of switching to nuclear power is 5 meltdowns and 5 new uninhabitable regions per year. And I haven’t said anything yet about the waste problem. Managing the nuclear waste of the small number of nuclear power plants we have right now has already proven to be difficult – it is hard to see how we would be able to deal with 50 times (or even 10 times) that amount.
Despite these problems, we’ll need nuclear power. As mentioned, nuclear power is the only alternative source of energy with an acceptable EROI. There is no way we can produce sufficient energy with other alternatives, but let’s look at those alternatives first.
The paradigmatic “alternative” sources of energy together produce a few percent of the world’s energy.15 Some of these can be expanded, but not all of them can, and none of them passes the above limitations. Water power depends on natural circumstances, and in most places where water power is economically and technically feasible it is already being produced. The total contribution thereof to energy production is small,16 and will remain small. Geothermal energy and wave energy may be important sources of energy locally, but cannot even hope to produce one percent of world demand together. There is room for wind energy to grow – that is, there are still potential locations for windmill parks – but windmills have a pretty lousy EROI (close to 2:1), require expensive (and energy-intensive) material resources, and cause ecological disruption (by killing birds). As it is, windmills are largely symbolic: they signify a token commitment to renewable energy (and being very large and very visible, they do this very well), but don’t really make a substantial contribution and never will.
Of the paradigmatic alternative energy sources, the only one that can play a substantial role is solar energy by means of photovoltaic solar cells. Optimists and techno-Utopians often envision a future in which all roofs are covered with solar cells, cars run on solar energy, and so forth. All of that is technically possible, but there are some complications. To produce a two digit percentage of current world energy demand, we’d have to manufacture many 100s of square kilometers of photovoltaic cells, and manufacturing those requires various scarce and expensive resources and lots of energy. For example, the currently most widely used technology is Cadmium telluride photovoltaics. To produce solar cells that employ that technology large amounts of the very rare metalloid tellurium are required. If we’d want to produce about 10% of current total world energy production (i.e. 10% of ca. 160,000 Twh/year) by means of these solar cells, we’d need approximately 3000 times the current yearly tellurium production, and 8.5 times the estimated total winnable supply.17 Similar limitations apply to other solar energy technologies.
Because of such resource limitations, solar energy can never provide much more energy than 10% of what the world currently consumes (and perhaps, much less). The technology keeps improving,18 but for physical reasons changing light into electricity is difficult, making it unlikely that it will ever be possible to produce solar energy at a scale required to make it our main source of energy.19 And on top of these limitations, there is a more practical problem with photovoltaics as well: they require the sun to shine, but sometimes clouds get in the way. For that reason, as is the case with wind energy, reliability is also a problem.
reducing energy use
Perhaps, if solar energy technology keeps developing we could reach something like 10% of current energy production by combining different technologies. If we rapidly start to build new nuclear power plants as well, nuclear power could produce another 10% or even 15%. (But even that would require an immense effort.) Water, wind, and other renewable energy sources could add another 5% (if we can continue to provide the necessary raw materials to build and maintain energy production facilities). So, if we make a serious effort, we could, perhaps, produce 30% of our current energy production without burning fossil fuels. Because fossil fuels are not an option if we want to avoid collective suicide (and that is one of the premises of this article), then that 30% will be the only available energy, and consequently, we’d have to cut approximately 70% of our energy consumption.
About one quarter of energy consumption is for transportation and virtually all of that depends on fossil fuels. Transportation devices will have to switch to hydrogen,20 electricity (including solar cells), and/or wind (in case of sea transport),21 but because energy is also needed elsewhere (see below), there will have to be a massive reduction of transport-related energy use. Because the transport and distribution of food must be a priority (to avoid famine and food riots – see the “principles” above), most other transport will have to be discontinued or severely restricted. There will almost certainly be no energy available for personal transport. There will be no cars, no trains, no planes, and so forth. If you want to go somewhere, you’ll have to walk or ride a bicycle (or horse, perhaps). (So forget about flying cars – you won’t even have a regular car in the future.)
Sources differ a bit in their estimates of energy use by other sectors, mainly because of differences in definitions. Industrial energy consumption is between one third and more than half. Most of the rest is used by households and the service sector. Households and the service sector will have to cut back on things like lighting, heating, and cooling. Lighting is becoming increasingly energy efficient thanks to LED technology, but heating will have to be severely restricted (by setting legal limits of heating up to 12°C, for example) and will have to be made more efficient, and cooling will probably have to be abandoned completely (except, perhaps, in hospitals during heatwaves). Smartphones and many other electronic devices will also no longer be available.22 Partially because they consume too much energy in their use, but partially also because they consume way too much energy (and also pollute too much in other ways) in their production. The Internet may also no longer be possible. But sacrifices won’t be limited to the domestic (and commercial) sphere: hospitals cannot afford to waste energy on hopeless patients either, for example.
Industry is the biggest user of energy – it is responsible for somewhere between one third and more than half of all energy consumption (depending on sources and their definitions) – so that’s where the biggest cuts will have to take place. The metals, chemicals, and minerals industry is responsible for approximately half of the industrial energy consumption. We’ll need iron and steel, but many of these industries will have to be abandoned. Some production of chemicals will also have to be abandoned for other reasons – more about that below. Perhaps, the biggest, but absolutely necessary sacrifice in this sector is aluminum. Aluminum is one of the most widely used metals, but it also requires a stupendous amount of energy for its production. In addition to aluminum, there are many other materials that we’ll have to give up. And this will have implications for many other kinds of products and industries. (I’m not sure whether we’ll actually be able to make windmills for power generation, for example, but as those are largely symbolic anyway, that doesn’t matter much.)23
There are other industries that also will have to cut back their production drastically or even disappear completely. The paper and printing energy, for example, is the biggest energy consumer in the OECD countries after the aforementioned sectors, and is also a major energy consumer worldwide. Paper and printed materials will have to be reduced significantly, but as their transport and distribution is hardly essential there may not be energy available for that either, leaving only small, local paper and printing industries. The manufacturing of electronic devices also uses much energy (as well as water and various polluting chemicals) and will also have to be cut back significantly. But as there won’t be enough electricity available to operate many electronic devices, there won’t be much demand for them anyway.
The main cause of the difference between estimates of industrial energy use is the in- or exclusion of agriculture. Agriculture is a major source of pollution (including CO₂ emissions) as well as a major energy consumer, so significant changes will be necessary in the agricultural sector. This will unavoidably reduce agricultural output. Because this is not just an energy issue, I’ll turn to agriculture and food in a separate section below.
energy – conclusion
In the introduction to this section, I wrote that there are three options with regards to energy: (1) continue burning fossil fuels and capture and store the CO₂, (2) switch to alternative sources of energy, and (3) reduce energy use. The first and second turn out to rely on magic, mostly. CO₂ capture cannot possibly make a major contribution to any solution of the climate crisis without breaking the laws of physics (which is obviously impossible). And substituting alternative energy sources for fossil fuels would require a magical increase in necessary resources and capacities. If we make a very serious effort, nuclear and solar energy might, perhaps, supply 30% of the energy we are currently producing (and by building more nuclear power plants, that percentage could continue to increase, but there are – of course – serious risks and problems involved in nuclear energy). This means that we’ll have to cut down our energy consumption by approximately 70%. That will be hard, but it is not impossible. We’ll have to give up cars and other personal transportation, refrigerators, most electronic devices, and much more, but it won’t be a return to pre-modern conditions.
The following figure shows the difference in energy availability now and then in the most optimistic scenario. It clearly shows that most of our energy comes from fossil fuels (black in the figure) followed by other carbon-based fuels like “bio-fuels”. I haven’t mentioned the latter above, but they are as harmful as fossil fuels.24 The circle for “then” is mostly missing, but even that requires an immense expansion of nuclear power and renewable energy (mostly solar).25
In addition to a very drastic reduction in energy consumption (and a complete switch to alternative sources for energy production) we’ll also need carbon capture (both through reforestation and by artificial means), partially to capture the CO₂ emissions that we cannot avoid – natural gas and wood might be the most efficient or only available energy source for cooking, for example – and partially to reduce atmospheric CO₂ levels to an acceptable (preferably pre-industrial) level (in order to keep as much as possible of the planet inhabitable).
carbon and other pollutants
Not all CO₂ and methane emissions are related to the burning of fossil fuels. Methane is far less important as a greenhouse gas than CO₂, but just cutting back on CO₂ emissions is insufficient – other greenhouse gases such as methane and HFCs (which are used in refrigerators and air-conditioners and which are thousands of times more effective as greenhouse gases than CO₂) will have be controlled as well.
Commonly all greenhouse gas emissions are aggregated in CO₂ equivalents. One unit of methane, for example, is about 28 times as effective as one unit of CO₂, and thus counts as 28 CO₂ equivalent units. Energy-related emissions are by far the largest part of total greenhouse gases measured like this, but there are some other major sources. The second biggest source of greenhouse gases at approximately 12% is related to land-use and changes therein – mainly deforestation. Agriculture and cement manufacturing and use are the next major producers. If energy-related CO₂ emissions are included, these two sectors are responsible for 14% and 10% of total emissions, respectively. I haven’t seen a percentage for agriculture that counts energy-related emissions separately, but in case of cement that is 6%. In other words, if all energy consumed in the manufacturing and use of cement and concrete would come from alternative energy sources, it would still emit an amount of CO₂ equal to 6% of current total emissions. That is unacceptably much, and consequently, cement and concrete will have to be banned.
Smaller, but still substantial, percentages are contributed by industry and waste. The chemical and electronics industry, for example, emit substantial amounts of greenhouse gases in addition to their energy-consumption-related emissions. And waste contributes to the greenhouse effect in two ways: firstly the waste we produce decomposes and in that process releases methane and CO₂ (and a lot of other pollutants), and secondly a lot is wasted in mining and transport of fossil fuels (of natural gas, especially). Many of these emissions will be reduced as side-effects of necessary changes mentioned in the previous section. Terminating or severely reducing fossil fuel winning will also (almost) eliminate waste by that sector, for example. However, not all of these CO₂ emissions will be halted automatically as a consequence of a drastic change in energy production and consumption. Waste remains a problem, and to combat the land-use related emissions we need an ambitious reforestation program. Unfortunately, the latter is severely hindered by climate-change-induced drought. At 2% or 3% of average global warming Central America, the Mediterranean, and large parts of Asia will become so dry that we’ll loose more forest than we can hope to plant anywhere.
Unfortunately, even if we “fix” our CO₂ problem, that still doesn’t mean we’re in the clear. The CO₂-induced greenhouse effect is not the only environmental threat of catastrophic proportions – possibly equally threatening is the spread of ocean anoxia. Anoxia (lack of oxygen) is caused by the run-off of soil minerals and – especially – fertilizers. Because of this, growing parts of coastal seas and oceans periodically turn into “dead zones”, killing most life forms. According to Itsuki Handoh and Timothy Lenton the main culprit is phosphorus, which creates a positive feedback of phosphate concentration, changes in biological productivity, and anoxia in the oceans.27 In the geological past there have been several occasions in which phosphorus run-offs reached such levels that this positive feedback turned almost all of the oceans anoxic. That killed most marine life, but it also lead to burps of hydrogen sulfide, which poisoned the atmosphere, killing most life on land as well.28
Phosphorus is a main ingredient of agricultural fertilizers, and consequently, agriculture is the main cause of ocean anoxia. Probably, the amount of phosphorus we have (accidentally) dumped into the oceans isn’t enough yet to set off runaway ocean anoxia, but increasing temperatures also increase anoxia, so there is reason for concern. (And acidification is also destroying marine ecosystems, and what replaces them much more easily slips into anoxic conditions.) Tim Lenton and Andrew Watson even suggest that ocean anoxia may be more dangerous – that is, more likely to cause human extinction – than CO₂.29 This is something that we probably shouldn’t gamble on, so we need to stop washing phosphorus and other anoxia-causing elements into the ocean. That, however, means that agriculture can no longer use fertilizers. (And it may also require a change in plowing and cultivation practices.)
The problems for agriculture don’t stop there. No more fertilizers. Insufficient energy for agricultural machinery. Fundamental changes in land use and cultivation practices. On top of all of that we also need to ban pesticides. Insect populations are declining rapidly all over the world,30 which may seem nice if you don’t like insects, but insects play vital roles in most ecosystems, and we need insects – bees particularly – to fertilize crops. Without bees most agricultural crops cannot be produced. Bee extinction might not lead to human extinction, but it would destroy agriculture, and without agriculture only a few million hunter-gatherers could inhabit Earth. But it’s not just the possible extinction of bees that would be problematic. Most ecosystems are fragile and complex, and insects tend to play key roles in many of them. Insects don’t have to go extinct – a significant decline in key species can be enough to cause an ecosystem to collapse.
Two paragraphs back, I mentioned Tim Lenton and Andrew Watson’s warning for ocean anoxia. That warning came from Revolutions that Made the Earth, their book about major “revolutions” in the Earth system that fundamentally changed the face of our planet.31 The last of these revolutions is the introduction of intelligent life – us. What all of the successful, previous revolutions in the Earth system have in common is that they lead to new recycling systems. All of the nutrients for life where recycled, with oceans and rocks also playing key roles in those (long!) recycling processes. And from a long-term perspective, it is rather obvious that 100% recycling is necessary for a revolution in the Earth system to succeed – without effective recycling, the Earth system will slowly run out of essential resources and/or drown in waste. The reason why the last revolution appears to be failing is that we don’t recycle. For long-term success – and that really means long-term human survival – we need to recycle everything we use. Without recycling we are parasitic on our host (i.e. the Earth system) and will eventually kill that host or make it very sick. Since there is no other host (there is no planet B), in either case, the parasite (i.e. us) will die.
agriculture, food, and population
I assume that the preceding has made it sufficiently clear that there are serious problems for the agricultural sector, and therefore, for food production. In principle, Earth could feed many more people, but there are many converging problems that even make it unlikely that we can continue to feed the current world population. Most cities grew in places that already had a significantly higher population density, usually because agriculture was most productive there. Slowly, sprawling cities took over the best land, pushing agriculture further and further into the periphery. So now the potentially best agricultural lands are mostly covered by cities, and unfortunately those have polluted those areas for centuries if not thousands of years, so it is not something we can return to the way it was.
Still, there is lots of good agricultural land available and if we’d choose to everywhere produce whatever local conditions are most suitable for, then we could still feed many more people. It would require a vast transportation and distribution network, however, and we won’t have the energy for that. And it would require fertilizers, which we need to abandon to avoid spreading ocean anoxia to catastrophic levels. Instead, we need to produce as much as possible locally, with minimal use of energy-consuming machinery, with minimal transportation to markets, without industrial fertilizers, and without pesticides. In other words, the agricultural sector needs to de-industrialize.
It’s hard to exaggerate what that implies. In Feeding the Ten Billion, Lloyd Evans tracks the relation between global population and changes in agricultural practices, crops, and techniques throughout history.32 Based on his work, we can retrace global population size to just before the widespread use of fertilizers and mechanization in agriculture – that is, to approximately 1940. There were a bit over 2 billion people then. That doesn’t mean that we can only feed 2 billion people after de-industrializing agriculture, however, because there are many other differences that need to be taken into account.
On the negative side, aridification will significantly reduce land that is suitable for agriculture, and increasing temperatures will reduce crop productivity. Due to ocean acidification and expanding dead zones, fish (except fresh-water fish) and other marine products will no longer be unavailable.33
On the positive side, there may be less land and less rain, but there will be more people available to work the land (as many industries will have to be shut down either because we won’t have the energy to run their factories, or because they are too polluting). Increasing labor as an input doesn’t fully compensate for other inputs (land, water, fertilizers, and so forth), of course, but it will add a bit to production. Furthermore, if food production is prioritized in the assignment of energy and other scarce resources – and such a priority is necessary to avoid famine and food riots – then agriculture might not have to be de-industrialized completely (aside from the use of industrial fertilizers and pesticides, which have to banned regardless).
Additionally, there are important differences in technology. If genetic engineering is going to be used to make crops more productive in warmer, drier conditions and/or less reliant on pesticides and fertilizers (instead of making crops resistant to carcinogenic herbicides), then this could also significantly increase productivity. And there may be other new technologies and practices that can increase agricultural production as well. However, it is one of the principles of this article to avoid science fiction – that is, to not gamble on what might be possible in the future (because technological progress is slow and uncertain) – and therefore, speculations about how many people we might be able to feed if we invent something new has no place here.
So what does this mean in terms of numbers? The 2 billion people that the Earth fed before widespread industrialization of agriculture is a good starting point. Increasing labor-intensitivity might, perhaps, add 50% or so, but the loss of land due to aridification and crop declines due to drought and heat immediately take that away again. Prioritizing food production, however, adds a bit, and so do new, stronger and more versatile crops. But the loss of the ocean as a food source cancels out some of that. The exact size of a lot of these effects is very uncertain. If aridification, drought, and natural disasters are worse than expected, then we might be able to feed only 1 billion people. If, on the other hand, prioritizing food production and increasing labor-intensitivity works better than expected, we might be feed more than 3 billion. I’m inclined to say that the lower of those two numbers is overly pessimistic for the Lesser Dystopia scenario. (It is, however, overly optimistic for the collapse scenario – in those circumstances, which involve more extreme climate change as well as widespread societal collapse and civil war – we’d be lucky if Earth can feed half a billion people.)
Let’s be optimistic and say that we can feed between 2.5 and 3 billion people. That would, of course, imply that there will be 5 or 6 billion people too many. However, I haven’t mentioned the biggest change we can – and need to – make to feed people yet. We can feed a few billion more people if we give up on meat and most other animal products. If everyone switches to vegetarian or even vegan diets, then we could feed as many as 4 or 5 (or maybe even 6) billion people. But even then there are 3 or 4 billion people too many, and that number is rapidly growing.
There are two – and only two – ways to solve that problem. The first is mass murder – either by means of widespread war and famine (i.e. the global societal collapse scenario), or by targeted genocide or artificial epidemics. I’ll assume that no sane person thinks that this is an acceptable solution, which leaves us with the only alternative: strict population control. We need a strictly enforced one-child policy. And “strictly enforced” means really strictly enforced. The alternative to bringing the global population under control (which is really a euphemism for reducing it to the 4 or 5 billion we can feed) is the Mad-Maxian collapse scenario in which nature and war together will produce (more than) the necessary population reduction, but in an even less humane way.34 So – assuming that contraception and birth control are not available everywhere – abortion will have to become much more widely available, and all infants that are born in violation of the one-child policy (i.e. every infant born to a mother who already has given birth) will have to be killed at birth. (It would be preferable to just sterilize every woman after giving birth, but that might not be possible everywhere either.) Additionally, it might be a good idea to somehow reward women who choose not to have children at all. There are obvious drawbacks of such a one-child policy (aside from the fact that most religions will oppose it). It may lead to generations of spoiled, over-protected “princes” and “princesses”, for example. And it may lead to gender imbalances if no policies are implemented to correct that. But it should be obvious that those problems are negligible compared to the famine, war, and collapse that will inevitably follow if we do not sufficiently decrease the size of the global human population.
Assuming that life expectancy is going to decrease significantly35 – even in the Lesser Dystopia36 – it would take until the middle of the century to reach 6 billion, but after that population decline would progress quite rapidly. We’d reach 5 billion before 2060, and 4 billion before 207037 However, we’d have billions of people too many for half a century, and that is a serious problem, because it means that we cannot fully de-industrialize agriculture at anywhere near the speed needed.
But let’s be optimistic (again) and call it a “challenge” rather than a “problem”. The challenge, then, is to design a program for agricultural change that makes agriculture as carbon-neutral and phosphorus-neutral as possible, while feeding the world population, and while leaving some energy, labor, and other resources for other uses. I’m not sure whether it can be done, but – in gross violation of this article’s principles – I will assume that it is possible, because if it is not then we are doomed, which might very well be the case, but which would make this article rather pointless. In any case, it won’t be possible without extending the period of carbon emissions because there is no way we will be able to make a sufficiently productive agricultural sector carbon neutral within one or two decades. That, of course, implies that we’ll have to be stricter when it comes to other CO₂ emissions (i.e. those will have to be cut back to zero even faster) and invest more in carbon capture, but also that we probably cannot avoid more global warming. The latter, in turn, means that an even larger part of the planet might become uninhabitable (and thus that the one-child policy will have to remain in effect even longer to reach an even smaller world population), and that the risk of passing tipping points leading to much more serious or even catastrophic climate change also increases. But we don’t have a choice really – unless we want to consider designing a virus that kills everyone over 20, for example, or unless we accept population reduction by means of global famine and war.
The world floats on oil. Drain away that oil, and everything runs aground.
The primary focus of modern politics is economic growth. Economic growth is an increase in the gross domestic product (GDP) of an area, usually a country, and GDP is the sum total of all final goods and services produced in that area measured by their market value. So, economic growth is an increase in production in terms of market value. This implies that an economy can grow in two ways: either by making more people produce things, or by making people produce more things per person. The former requires population growth and/or the entrance of previously non-working groups into the labor force. As Ha-Joon Chang pointed out, one of the most important inventions of the 20th century (from an economic point of view, but probably not just an economic view) was the washing machine as it allowed women to start working outside the house.38 Although this made an important contribution to economic growth in the second half of the 20th century, the second source of economic growth – an increase in “productivity” – is by far the most important.
Productivity growth is an increase in the total market value of goods and services produced per producer (i.e. worker). Or – to put it the other way around – it is producing the same amount of things (measured by their market prices!) with less people. On the short term, productivity can increase and decrease for all kinds of reasons. If a product suddenly becomes fashionable and consumers are willing to pay more for it, then the market price of that product rises and its producers, therefore, become more “productive”. On the longer term there is, however, really just one source of productivity growth: a substitution of energy for labor. If you own a shoe factory and you want to produce more shoes, then you can either hire more workers or buy some machines to do part of the work. However, running those machines requires energy. That’s the main reason why productivity growth is really a substitution of energy for labor.
Almost all historic productivity growth has depended on cheap energy. We burned coal to allow workers to use machines to produce more, and when oil became cheaper, we switched to oil. While there have been (and continue to be) changes in the sources of energy, one thing has remained the same: to produce more with less workers, you need more energy as an input in the production process. As mentioned above, most of that energy comes from fossil fuels. An increasing, but comparatively very small part comes from nuclear energy and (other) alternative sources, but fossil fuels – coal, oil, and gas – remain the dominant sources of energy. Hence, current productivity levels – and thus the current economic state (i.e. the level of global GDP) – is mostly dependent on fossil fuels. The world floats on oil. Drain away that oil, and everything runs aground.
The implication is obvious: if we have to reduce energy use something like 30% of current levels, then the energy that was required to reach current productivity levels will no longer be available. And thus, productivity will drop. Sharply. And in the same way that economic growth depended on productivity growth (that is, again, on substituting fossil fuels for labor), a sharp decline in productivity will lead to economic decline.
Some of the worst global economic decline that the world has seen in recent decades was that following the 2008 Great Recession caused by debts and speculations by the deregulated financial (FIRE) sector. That decline was around 0.1% globally in 2009, compared to growth rates between 3% and 6% before and after. But 0.1% decline is nothing. Russia experienced 14.5% decline in 1991, and around 40% over the 1990s as a whole, thanks to the enforced adoption of radical free market policies. The results were disastrous in many respects, causing widespread poverty, crime, and population decline, but still they are nowhere near the economic decline that will result from a global restriction of energy availability to approximately 30% of current levels (especially if food production is prioritized in the assignment of available energy).
Since the 1970s there has been a fringe movement within economics advocating “degrowth”, reducing the size of (mainly Western, industrialized) economies to create more sustainable societies. Since the 2000s this movement has become less “fringe”, but it is still far from mainstream. Thanks to the small increase in popularity, there has been a substantial growth of research on the idea of degrowth and the related (but much older) idea of a steady-state economy (that is, an economy that doesn’t grow), however. Recently, Giorgos Kallis and five colleagues reviewed that research in a paper published in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources.39 The most important section of their paper is the fourth, which focuses on the economics of degrowth. Their main conclusion in that section is that “recession and depression are possible within capitalism; degrowth is probably not.”
The main (but not only) reason why capitalism needs economic growth to function has to do with the finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) sector. FIRE makes money (for itself) by means of rent extraction. Rent is income generated by a right or privilege (such as a property right) rather than by producing anything. Land rent (or house rent), for example, is paid to the landlord just because that landlord owns the land or house. Other kinds of rent include interests (paid on loans), monopolies, and patent fees, for example.40
In an unregulated economy, rent extraction by FIRE (or its historical equivalents) will lead to a growing indebtedness of the rest of the economy to FIRE. In pre-capitalist economies this problem was periodically solved by means of debt cancellations or other means with the same effect. A major crisis like the early 20th century Great Depression can also effectively cancel some debts and thereby reset the economy, but the preferred method of dealing with this growing indebtedness to FIRE under capitalism is economic growth. As long as the economy grows faster than interest and other rent obligations there is no problem. But if economic growth stops, then all other sectors of the economy suddenly struggle or even become incapable of paying what they owe to FIRE. Then companies lay off workers to reduce their costs, households reduce their spending, and governments adopt austerity measures. All of that just deepens the crisis, however, as it further reduces the money available to everyone.41
In other words, capitalism needs economic growth to allow the financial sector (i.e. FIRE) to continue extracting wealth from the rest of society. As long as the rest of society – thanks to economic growth – continues to get richer faster than FIRE extracts wealth, the economy is fine, but without economic growth, households, companies, and the state can no longer support the financial sector, which then would collapse, possibly taking the rest of the economy (i.e. the real economy) with it. (FIRE is also responsible for periodic economic crises such as the recent Great Recession and the next economic crisis that will probably hit within a few years and that is likely to deal a greater blow to the world economy than the previous crisis, but that’s besides the point here.42) For this reason, Giorgos Kallis and colleagues were right to conclude that “recession and depression are possible within capitalism; degrowth is probably not”, although the word “probably” seems unnecessarily weak.
Under capitalism, economic decline leads to recession or crisis. The deeper that recession or crisis, the more severe the social effects. And a reduction of available energy to 30% of current levels will cause an economic crisis so deep that it will make the Great Depression look like a vacation. This is a problem for reasons revealed in the previous chapter in this series, which was also mentioned in the context of the “principles” that guide the present article. The simulation model used in On The Fragility of Civilization showed an important feedback effect of economic decline. Let me quote from that article:
Gradually, the economic impact of disasters will start to build up and cause economic stagnation or decline. In a capitalist society, stagnation or decline causes unemployment, uncertainty, stress, and unrest.43 That increase of unrest, combined with other sources of unrest (such as disasters and contagion), causes further economic damage – small at first, but vast in case the unrest level leads to civil war. In most regions, the unrest levels are very low in the beginning, so economic decline by itself is nowhere sufficient to cause societal collapse or civil war, but combinations of problems will (eventually) push some regions over the edge, and that produces more refugees, more contagion, and more economic decline, and all of those spread to adjacent areas. This produces a vicious circle of economic decline causing unrest causing refugees causing unrest and further economic decline, and so forth. Furthermore, with economic decline, a region also becomes less capable of managing and repairing disaster (and unrest) damage, and of resettling refugees (or evacuees) and immigrants. This leads to a second vicious circle of economic decline causing more severe long-term effects of disasters (and unrest) causing more economic decline (and of course, these two vicious circles interact with and reinforce each other). Given the importance of these feedback effects, the neglect of trade by the model (see previous section) becomes especially important: a collapse of trade will have serious economic impacts, and if economic decline plays such a central role in societal collapse, then a collapse of the global trade system will significantly hasten global societal collapse.
So, to sum up, under capitalism the inevitable economic decline resulting from a decrease of available energy will lead to unrest and, eventually, collapse. Or in other words, under capitalism the Mad-Maxian Greater Dystopia of global societal collapse is the only possible scenario. And consequently, the Lesser Dystopia will not be capitalist.
That capitalism has to go should also be obvious for other reasons. Capitalism depends on unlimited resource exploitation (as already observed by Marx and others in the 19th century), but resources aren’t unlimited. The “theoretical” justification of capitalism by means of mainstream, “neoclassical” economic ignores this, however. Mainstream economics assumes that natural resources are infinite – some resources will run out, but thanks to technological change (which is also infinite) there will always be alternatives available. The notion is not as ludicrous as it may sound. Indeed, thus far we have been quite successful in finding alternatives (or even just alternative sources) when key resources started to run out (fracking is a good example), but the idea that this can continue forever is absurd. That absurdity, however, may have more to do with the other end of the production process: “infinite” resources in inefficient production processes produce “infinite” waste. And like limited resources, waste is (mostly) ignored by economics. By now, the world is drowning in the waste of capitalism (i.e. CO₂ and other pollutants), however.
But perhaps, it isn’t exactly correct to blame capitalism for this. Rather than capitalism itself, it is industrialization that depends on infinite resource exploitation (and infinite waste production). However, capitalism and industrial society are thoroughly intertwined. There have been attempts to combine alternative economic systems – such as corporatism/fascism and socialism (or state-capitalism) – with industrial society, of course, but those are just distractions really. The question is not whether industry is possible without capitalism, but whether capitalism is possible without industry (and the success or failure of socialism, for example, is utterly irrelevant to that question).
It is common to define capitalism as a simple sum of private ownership plus markets, but as Geoffrey Hodgson points out in Conceptualizing Capitalism, the most thorough study of the nature of capitalism that I am aware of, both these features of capitalism actually predate capitalism, and therefore, cannot be sufficient to define it.44 Instead, Hodgson offers the following definition:
Capitalism is defined . . . as a system of production with the following six characteristics:
1. A legal system supporting widespread individual rights and liberties to own, buy, and sell private property
2. Widespread commodity exchange and markets involving money
3. Widespread private ownership of the means of production by firms producing goods or services for sale in the pursuit of profit
4. Much of production organized separately and apart from the home and family
5. Widespread wage labor and employment contracts
6. A developed financial system with banking institutions, the widespread use of credit with property as collateral, and the selling of debt45
Capitalism in this sense (and this is the only sense that makes sense) almost certainly requires industrial production, because most of these aspects are either consequences or side-effects of widespread industrialization. Thus, capitalism depends on industrialization, which depends on unlimited exploitation of natural resources in turn, which implies that capitalism its parasitic on the earth system by its nature.46 Unless, the dependency is merely historical and not systemic. If industrial society just created the conditions for capitalism to evolve, but capitalism can transcend those conditions, then perhaps, we could move on to some kind of “green capitalism”.
While in some kind of idealized world (although I’m not sure whose ideal it would be) some kind of “green capitalism” might be possible, it is not possible in this world. Even if it would be possible to create a perfectly recycling capitalism, we’d still lack the energy for continued economic growth or even to maintain the current level. And economic decline is incompatible with capitalism. Of the six items in Hodgson’s definition, the 6th makes the FIRE sector a defining aspect of capitalism, but the existence of that sector (and thus that aspect of capitalism) is (part of) the reason why capitalism requires economic growth. So, item 6 (the FIRE sector) has to go. Furthermore, items 1 and 3 (property rights) will have to be limited (possibly severely) to safeguard food production and refugee management, and the down-scaling of the economy (due to energy shortage) will almost certainly make items 4 and 5 (related to the scale of production) much less applicable. In other words, whatever exactly the economic system or systems of the Greater Dystopia would be, it or they wouldn’t be some kind of green capitalism.
There is one more aspect of capitalism that needs to be addressed: its tendency to promote economic inequality. In On The Fragility of Civilization, I discussed the HANDY computer simulation model, which showed that extreme economic inequality (i.e. very large differences between rich and poor) eventually lead to societal collapse,47 but other cliodynamic models and simulations lead to similar results. There is a second reason why economic inequality is harmful: the rich are responsible (either directly or indirectly) for most CO₂ emissions and most other pollution. And a third reason: the rich got rich and continue to enrich themselves by means of rent extraction (that is, they are effectively part of FIRE), which means that they are more or less parasitic on the rest of society, but also that the money they suck out of the real economy cannot be used for more important things such as fighting climate change, education, and so forth. (For anything really, as there are few things that are not more useful than further enriching the rich.)
For all of these reasons, there is no place for extreme economic inequality in the Lesser Dystopia. Rent extraction must be largely abolished (along with most activities of the FIRE sector), and existing wealth above median levels must be expropriated and used for adaptation, food security, and refugee management.
“But don’t the rich deserve their money?” might some object, “They worked hard for it!”. Well … no, they didn’t. Meritocracy is a myth propagated by the rich to create the illusion that they deserve their wealth. The reality is that no one ever got rich by working for it. Most wealth is inherited, and wealth that isn’t inherited is rooted in rent extraction – that is, in abusing some privilege or right to force people to pay more for some good or service than it is really worth.48 Monopolies, real estate, finance, patents and copyrights, and so forth are the real sources of exorbitant wealth. The rich didn’t (and don’t) work for their money – they let their money and other privileges “work” for them. And thereby they impoverished everyone else and destroyed the environment. So, the rich don’t deserve their money. Their money – or our money, really – should be taken out of their hands and used to save people and to save the planet (rather than the opposite). The rich don’t deserve their money. When the rest of the world finally wakes up and realizes what the rich have done, they are lucky if they are allowed to live.
outline of an economic program
Ancient China was periodically plagued by famines caused by natural disaster and war, leading to civil disorder and sometimes even the downfall of kingdoms. Emperors of the Han dynasty were aware of the problem and instructed their advisers to figure out how to deal with it. In the year 178 BCE, the influential adviser and official Chao Cuo 晁錯 wrote an important memorial that was published in The Book of Han 漢書 in 111 CE. Chao Cuo wrote:
When stomachs go hungry and don’t get food, when skins go cold and don’t get clothing, when even a compassionate mother cannot take care of her children, how could a ruler peacefully retain [the allegiance of] his people? An enlightened ruler who knows this will encourage the people in agriculture and silk farming, lighten tax collection, increase livestock and storage, and prepare for flood and drought, thereby allowing him to hold on to [the allegiance of] his people.49
While the sentiment expressed is similar to, for example, Mencius’s recommendation to king Hui a few centuries earlier to make sure that famine is avoided,50 Chao Cuo advocated a much more pro-active approach than Mencius’s laisez faire attitude. Making sure that there is no interference with traditional practices as Mencius recommended is not enough – the ruler should actively encourage food production and take charge of food security by means of storage and other measures. Whether it was just Chao Cuo’s recommendation or whether this was already becoming received wisdom at the time I don’t know, but food security became one of the core responsibilities of the Chinese empire – not for reasons of compassion or benevolence, but simply to maintain the allegiance of the people, to avoid civil unrest and societal collapse. It is partially for this reason that the Chinese build canals connecting different parts of the empire: to transport food (mainly rice) from one part to another when the second is threatened by famine and the first has a surplus.
A shortage of daily necessities such as food and water plays a key role in one of the vicious circles leading to societal collapse explained in On The Fragility of Civilization. Especially in a time of economic decline, natural disasters, and immense refugee flows, food security is key to avoiding global societal collapse. The ancient Chinese were right to make food security one of the core responsibilities of the state. In the Lesser Dystopia – because of the much more severe economic, social, and environmental circumstances – this becomes even more important. One might advocate providing food and shelter to people in need out of compassion or other humanitarian reasons, but there is a much more compelling reason: when the numbers of needy grow large, the alternative to offering them food and shelter is societal collapse.
From these considerations, we can derive the most important guiding principle of all economic (and other) policy in the Lesser Dystopia:
The first and overriding responsibility of the state is to provide food, shelter, and other daily necessities to all people in its territory (regardless of where they came from and how they got there).
This is an “overriding” responsibility, meaning that it takes priority over all other responsibilities, rights, and duties of the state. The state has to carry out this duty by all means necessary and available (with an exception for means that would have effects that are worse than what those means aim to avoid). But this implies that the state must have considerable power in the economic sphere. It must be able to confiscate and redistribute commodities and land, for example. And it might even need the power to make use of forced labor in extreme situations. Absolute property rights – one of the cornerstones of capitalism – have, therefore, no place in the Lesser Dystopia, and markets may occasionally have be regulated to ensure food security, for example.
Hunger and other direct threats to people’s lives are not the only triggers of (increased) civil unrest and cascading societal collapse: economic decline and extreme inequality can have the same effects. (See the previous section as well as On The Fragility of Civilization.) The overarching reason that motivates the first responsibility of the state mentioned above is avoiding societal collapse (that is, avoiding the Greater Dystopia), and that same overarching reason motivates a number of other policies and responsibilities. Here I’ll just briefly mention (with even shorter explanations) some of the most important ones, but this list is by no means complete.
- Nationalization or socialization (hereafter I’ll ignore the difference between the two) of all real estate. (This is necessary to avoid one kind of rent extraction that causes economic instability, indebtedness, and economic inequality, but also because in continuously changing conditions land speculation becomes too much of an economic risk, and because the state must be able to use land for food production and housing at any time.)
- Nationalization and abolition of the FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) sector; abolition of financial speculation; abolition of patents,51 copyrights,52 and other parasitical tools of rent extraction; universal debt cancellation; and an extremely restrictive lending policy by nationalized banks.53 (Much of this is necessary to avoid the parasitism of the financial sector, to avoid further financial/economic crises, to avoid extreme inequality, and to avoid other kinds of economic and social disaster caused by the financial industry. See the preceding section, as well as Rent, Debt, and Power.)
- Nationalization of the energy sector; a very quick phase-out of fossil fuel-based energy; and a restrictive energy distribution policy focusing on the provision of food, water, and other daily necessities.
- Strict regulation of all economic activity to ban CO₂ emissions and other pollution (as much as possible), and to avoid or alleviate negative impacts of energy shortage and other problems. (These last two items should be fairly obvious if you read the sections on energy and pollution above.)
- Abolition of pensions and most social welfare programs. (To some extent these become redundant as the state has the responsibility to feed and house the needy,54 but they will also become unaffordable in a shrinking economy. Abolition of pensions is especially important as population control will lead to even more top-heavy population pyramids. A pension system in such conditions would burden a small minority with all the productive work. In a largely de-industrialized economy that small minority won’t be able to produce enough, but even if they could, it is unlikely that they would accept that situation, and thus civic unrest would be the likely result. In the Lesser Dystopia everyone who can work has to work, and that includes the elderly.)
It should be noted that these points do not imply a switch to a completely planned economy. Much can be left to individual and collective initiative, and it is probably easier and more efficient to do that, but the state needs far-reaching powers to interfere in the economy whenever that interference is necessary to avert collapse. Given that the Lesser Dystopia will have to balance on a knife’s edge, state interference in the economy might be considerable, moreover. In conditions of social and climatic upheaval the margins are small, and the state must avoid dropping of the knife’s edge at all costs.
The foregoing implies that the state in the Lesser Dystopia must be quite strong and stable. But it will also have different goals and responsibilities, and different social, economic, and environmental circumstances will have further implications for the role and nature of the state.
For one thing, the nation state will be a thing of the past. The idea of the nation state is an early 19th century Romantic invention, of course, so from a historical point of view it was nothing but a brief diversion. With ever-changing circumstances and ever-changing populations due to migrations, evacuations, and natural disasters, the idea that political boundaries somehow correspond with the boundaries around a fixed nation with a national identity will quickly become ludicrous. Political boundaries will be better drawn along geographical boundaries, taking practical considerations with regards to the state’s primary responsibilities (see above) into account. Furthermore, states will be mere temporary arrangements and boundaries continuously redrawn – some areas will gradually become uninhabitable, for example, while elsewhere new social and physical realities make old boundaries irrelevant and/or require new ones.
With the idea of the nation state, and the nation itself, the notion of citizenship-by-birth needs to be buried as well. Refugee and migrant populations cannot be some kind of second-rate pseudo-citizens without many of the rights (and duties) as “real” citizens, without risking serious unrest and disorder. The state has the responsibility to secure food, shelter, and other daily necessities for all people in its territory, regardless of where those people are from. And artificially preventing people from becoming productive by not allowing them to integrate into the host society endangers everyone (both by limiting overall productivity, and by raising unrest levels). For that reason, where someone is from and when and how someone arrived in the state’s territory should be irrelevant for that person’s rights and duties. Everyone will have to be a citizen of whatever state they happen to live in.
But to a considerable extent, even that hollowed-out “citizenship”, as well as boundaries and territories are only of limited relevance. The state isn’t just responsible for feeding the people in its own territory, but those in adjacent territories as well, and for the exact same reason. If an adjacent territory is hit by a natural disaster leading to severe crop failure, then a state has the choice between bringing food there, or waiting for the refugees to flow in and having to provide them with food and shelter.
However, this also implies that a state has an interest in the management of food security in and by adjacent states. And that states must have means to force other states to safeguard food security in their territories when necessary. No state can be a free rider, because a free rider is a threat to all, and not just in this respect. No state can be allowed to pollute, or to emit CO₂, or to use more energy at the expense of its neighbors, and so forth.
All of this has obvious, but far-reaching implications for the organization, nature, and authority of states. Given that the first responsibility of the state is food security, and that energy will be scarce, small states are likely to be more efficient than large ones. But given the extension of responsibility towards one’s neighbors, these states will have to join together into larger units. And given that ultimately the problem of climate change is global and societal collapse is a global threat, these larger units will ultimately have to join into one global organization – something like the United Nations, perhaps, but with considerable more power. And importantly, these larger units must have the ability to force states to comply because no state can be allowed to endanger the whole world.
Unfortunately this creates a whole bunch of additional complications. The ability to force states to comply requires military force. States will need armies themselves as well – albeit more to assist with providing food, shelter, and safety than for national defense – but whatever supranational organization is charged with safeguarding the future of the planet, that organization must have an army and an arsenal of weapons. Unfortunately, armies and weapons tend to be major polluters. Still, it is better to accept the pollution caused by armies and weapons than to accept a state – or even multiple states – to emit CO₂, to pollute, or to otherwise endanger the rest of the planet. (Perhaps, the least polluting option would be to just obliterate seriously deviant states by means of nuclear weapons. There will be some fall-out, of course, and a small area will be uninhabitable for a while, but in comparison to the CO₂ pollution resulting from conventional warfare that is really negligible.)
But power corrupts, and if there is one big global organization with this much power, then what will stop it from abusing that power? History suggests that functioning democratic control is the most efficient means to minimize that risk. But history also teaches that democracy is easily corrupted, and I’m not sure whether there still are many functioning democracies in the world today. If democracy is reduced to nothing but elections it becomes a farce, as elections are easily manipulated.
At the very least, democracy requires a free press – free from corporate interests, that is – but in practice most of the mainstream press is owned by the same small corporate and financial elite that controls almost everything else. Because of this, the nominally still “free” press has become a farce as well. “Free press” now just means that the rich are free to use the press to further their interests.
But even a free press that is independent from corporate and government control, elections, and transparency in procedures are insufficient to achieve a functioning democracy because there is a fundamental defect in democracy as it is commonly conceived, and that defect turns into a threat – or actually, already has turned into a threat – in case of the climate crisis. This defect is the one-person-one-vote principle. Why this principle is a serious defect was, perhaps, most clearly illustrated by the Brexit referendum. In that referendum, among young people an overwhelming majority voted to remain in the EU, while a majority of people over 50 voted to leave. In this referendum a choice for the future was made, but strangely, the people who actually have to live in that future were outvoted and overruled by the people who are least affected. People who had almost nothing at stake forced an unwelcome result on people who had everything at stake. That is absurd and makes a mockery of the whole idea of democracy. But this absurdity is by no means restricted to that one referendum – in the contrary, the Babyboom generation has had an iron grip on politics in most industrialized countries for decades, pushing policies to serve their interests, consuming, wasting, and leaving nothing but a burned-out shell of a world for their children and grandchildren.
If in a group of five people it is decided by voting that two of them will have to give up everything they own to the other three and become beggars or slaves, then virtually anyone would consider this hideously unfair. But what’s so different between this scenario and one in which a group of people decides that the young must give up their future so the old can enjoy their old age?
If a choice with consequences for the future is to be made, then those who have to live with those consequences should have the largest say. In other words, votes should be weighted inversely proportionally to age.
For example, at the age of 73 or over (which few people will reach in the future because of declining life expectancy due to natural disasters, shortages, declining health care, pollution, civil unrest, and other factors), one’s vote would have a weight of 1, and for every year below 73, 1 is added to that weight. Hence, the weight of someone aged 72 would be 2, that of someone aged 40 would be 34, and the vote weight of someone aged 20 would be 54.55 This would, of course make the voting age considerably more important. Because it would be odd to go from 0 to maximum weight just by passing one’s 16th or 18th or 20th birthday, perhaps, weights should fade in like they fade out, only faster. If a 12-year-old would have a voting weight of 8 and 8 is added to that weight every year, then she reaches the maximum of 56 at age 18, after which the “fade out” starts.
This is just an example, of course, and many other weighting systems are possible. The system should be simple, however – it should be easy to understand and hard to corrupt or abuse. And most importantly, it should empower the people who have most at stake when decisions are made with consequences for the future.
If you’re over 40 or so (like me) then there is a good chance that you’ll object to this idea either because it gives you less power (i.e. for selfish reasons) or because you believe that wisdom comes with age and that young people should not make important decisions. But I see little reason to believe that wisdom comes with age – there is nothing wise in the recent voting decisions by the Babyboom generation, for example, just shortsighted selfishness. And given our track record and the situation we’re in, when it comes to important decisions for the future, I trust an informed 12-year-old much more than a 60-year-old. “But that’s just the problem,” you might object, “12-year-olds just aren’t sufficiently informed.” Perhaps that’s true (although I have my doubts), but we could educate them, of course (instead of continuing to cut education budgets to fund tax reductions for the rich). But even with current failing education I see very little reason to believe that the average 60-year-old is any better informed about the consequences of important decisions than the average 12-year-old. In the contrary, if the past decades have made one thing clear, it is that the middle-aged and old are incapable of taking the interests of the young (including their own children and grandchildren) into consideration when making important decisions. For that reason, empowering the young and disempowering the old is essential – without it the old will (continue to) make sure that there is no future for the young.56
If it hadn’t crossed your mind before, by know you’re probably convinced that we’ve arrived in cloud cuckoo land. It is unlikely that much if any of the preceding will ever be implemented. Not because it is physically, or technologically, or economically impossible, however (because all of it is possible in that sense). But because it is politically impossible. Sociopolitical inertia makes solutions (like these) impossible.57
Recall, however, the first of the principles guiding this article.“The question is purely about what is necessary, and not about what is sociopolitically possible or what is morally right.” If one of the conclusions of this article is that what is necessary to avoid collapse is impossible because it is outside the margins of what is deemed to be politically acceptable, then that doesn’t change anything about the article’s main findings. It does raise a question, however: Can the Lesser Dystopia (or something sufficiently close to it) be made sociopolitically possible? To answer that question, we first need a better picture of the main obstacles. Or in other words, we need to know the enemy. That will be the topic of the next chapter in this series.
I suppose that people from countries with failing education systems and corporate-controlled press might think that this article is advocating socialism, but that idea would be mistaken in two ways. Firstly, I’m not really advocating anything – I’m just trying to figure out what we’d have to do to avoid hell. That said, I think we should do everything we can to avoid global societal collapse and worse catastrophes, so if the Lesser Dystopia is the only alternative – and I think it is – then I’d favor the Lesser Dystopia indeed, albeit hesitantly because of its Dystopian character.
Secondly, while the Lesser Dystopia does indeed involve extensive interference of states in markets to assure food security (to avoid civil unrest), socialism is not the same thing as states interfering in markets. (If it was, then the bank bailouts by the US government a decade ago would be “socialist”, and any socialist will tell you that that suggestion is absurd.) Even if there are some superficial similarities between the Lesser Dystopia and some varieties of socialism, there also are fundamental differences. First of all, socialism is Utopian: it aims for a more or less ideal society, and it motivates this with moral arguments about fairness and equality. The Lesser Dystopia, on the other hand, is explicitly anti-utopian: it doesn’t aim for an ideal society but merely tries to avoid the Mad-Maxian hell of global societal collapse, and it is only concerned with fairness and equality in so far as those play a role in avoiding that. Furthermore, few socialists would agree with the abolition of social welfare programs and pensions, with the large role of the military, with the possible use of forced labor to ensure food security, and with many other aspects of the Lesser Dystopia. In fact, I’d expect socialists to reject the Lesser Dystopia emphatically because it conflicts with their ideals in too many ways.
The reason why I call the scenario sketched in this article the “Lesser Dystopia” is partially because I don’t think anyone likes the idea. (But also to explicitly oppose it to Utopianism, and because I believe it is a Dystopian vision of the future.) Libertarians will hate it because of the key roles of the state and the restrictions on economic freedom and markets. Conservatives will hate it because it leaves little room for traditions, nations, and conserving anything else they find important (except for human civilization itself, which is exactly what the Lesser Dystopia aims to conserve).58 Socialists will hate it for reasons already mentioned in the previous paragraph. Anarchists will hate it because of the strong states. Nationalists, patriots, and fascists will hate it because of the rejection of the nation state and the obligation to ignore race, nation, and so forth when it comes to the state’s responsibility to provide food and shelter. And so forth. Basically, I expect everyone to hate one, more, or probably very many aspects of the Lesser Dystopia. This puts all of us in the same spot, of course: the Lesser Dystopia is everyone’s Dystopia. Nevertheless, it is the Lesser Dystopia, because the only alternative – catastropic global societal collapse – is even worse.
Unfortunately, its Dystopian character, and the fact that very few people will wholeheartedly support it because of it, make it even less likely that the Lesser Dystopia will ever be realized. That is reason for pessimism, of course, because it would mean that global societal collapse is effectively unavoidable.59 However, it must also be realized that much of the above is not just what is necessary for avoidance of collapse, it is also necessary for mitigation of collapse. The policies that could allow us to escape hell – helping and feeding refugees, cutting down CO₂ emissions, restructuring our economies, and so forth – are also the policies that would decrease the suffering in case we (are forced to) choose not to escape hell, and they are also the policies that would make hell slightly less hellish.
Or to put this a bit differently, even if we cannot avoid the catastrophe of global societal collapse (because the global elite doesn’t allow us to make that choice), the closer we get to the Lesser Dystopia, the less catastrophic the effects of climate change and the effects of societal collapse (and if we are very lucky, the less widespread social collapse), and thus the better the chance of recovery after that catastrophe. Or in other words (again), even if we fail, the closer we get to the Lesser Dystopia, the better the chances for the survivors to build a new world.
Links to articles in this series:
No Time for Utopia – Series introduction. Against “ideal theory” and Utopianism.
On the Fragility of Civilization – Predicting global societal collapse within decades.
The Lesser Dystopia – (This episode.)
Enemies of Our Children – Who and what are preventing the necessary change of course?
The Ethics of Climate Insurgency – On violence as a means to prevent catastrophe.
The Possibility of a Revolution – Can a revolution establish the Lesser Dystopia?
The 2020s and Beyond – A scenario for the coming decades.
What to Do? – Some closing reflections on what we should and can do.
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- The higher you climb, the deeper you fall, and consequently, collapse will result in a kind of inversion of the socio-economic world we’ve gotten used to. That is, many – but not all – of the effects of global societal collapse will be much more devastating for the inhabitants of rich, developed, heavily fossil-fuel-dependent, mostly Western countries than for poorer, “underdeveloped” areas. I suppose that some people find some comfort in this reversal of “justice”, but that would be both callous and misguided. That some parts of the world are closer to hell already shouldn’t make the whole world going to hell any more acceptable.
- Thomas Hobbes (1651). Leviathan, XIII.9.
- You could call this the “no science fiction principle”.
- David Wallace-Wells (2019). The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future (Allen Lane), p. 179.
- Chang-Eui Park et al. (2018). “Keeping Global Warming within 1.5ºC Constrains Emergence of Aridification”, Nature Climate Change 8: 70–74.
- Instead of storing the carbon, we may also be able to make stuff out off the captured CO₂, but for now this is mostly science fiction. For an excessively optimistic review, see: Oleksandr Bushuyev et al. (2018), “What Should We Make with CO₂ and How Can We Make It?”, Joule 2.5: 825-32.
- Andy Skuce (2016), ‘We’d have to finish one new facility every working day for the next 70 years’ – Why carbon capture is no panacea; and: David Wallace-Wells (2019). The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future (Allen Lane), p. 45-46 and 170.
- Andy Skuce (2016).
- Wallace-Wells (2019), p. 170.
- Strictly speaking, it doesn’t produce energy, but merely changes its form.
- Nature editorial (2018). “Negative thinking”, Nature 554 (22 February), p. 404.
- One of the most promising lines of research is to genetically modify plants (the green ones, not the type of plants talked about above) to store more CO₂ in their roots.
- Thus, if a type of power plant has an EROI of 10:1 and there are 10 power plants of that type, then one of them is just running to keep the others and itself running.
- Charles Hall & Kent Klitgaard (2018). Energy and the Wealth of Nations: An Introduction to Biophysical Economics, Second Edition (Springer).
- About 4% in total.
- Currently about 2.5% of world energy consumption is provided by hydro-power.
- See: http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/selenium/mcs-2008-tellu.pdf
- For a review of the available technologies and their developments, see: Pabitra Nayak, Suhas Mahesh, Henry Snaith, & David Cahen (2019). “Photovoltaic Solar Cell Technologies: Analysing the State of the Art”, Nature Reviews (published online: March 28th, 2019).
- Indirectly it is the source of almost all our energy, of course, as fossil fuels are just fossilized solar energy.
- Some people seem to think that hydrogen can be a source of energy, but that is really a confusion: hydrogen is only a means of storing and transporting energy. Hydrogen is made (from water) with the help of a source of energy (nuclear or solar, for example). For transportation devices, hydrogen may be a very efficient energy storage medium, but it is unlikely that hydrogen will have any uses beyond that. We simply won’t have the energy available to produce enough hydrogen to make it a substitute for natural gas in all its uses, for example.
- Yes, we’ll probably have to revert to sail for transport on water.
- You cannot just power them with solar energy, remember – the solar cells you’d need for that are already being used for something more important.
- For a wealth of information on energy use in the production of various things (such as aluminum, paper, and steel), and a lot of other details that matter to what is discussed in these paragraphs as well as the rest of this section, see: William Vollmann (2011), “Primer”, in: No Immediate Danger: Volume I of Carbon Ideologies (New York: Viking).
- Or possibly even more, because they also harm agriculture and thereby food production.
- It may not be possible to get rid of the other carbon-based fuels completely, so perhaps there should be a small brown pie in the “then” circle as well. Burning wood for cooking and heating will probably be the only option in many areas, for example.
- Lutz Mez (2016). “Climate protection through nuclear power plants? Hardly”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
- Itsuki Handoh & Timothy Lenton (2003). “Periodic Mid-Cretaceous Oceanic Anoxic Events Linked by Oscillations of the Phosphorus and Oxygen Biochemical Cycles”, Global Biogeochemical Cycles 17.4, 1092.
- Anoxia also leads to an increase of gases that eat away the ozone layer, further helping the extinction of land animals.
- Tim Lenton & Andrew Watson (2011). Revolutions that Made the Earth (Oxford: OUP).
- Francisco Sánchez-Bayoa & Kris Wyckhuysb (2019). “Worldwide Decline of the Entomofauna: A Review of its Drivers” Biological Conservation 232: 8-27.
- Lenton & Watson (2011), Revolutions that Made the Earth.
- Lloyd Evans (1998). Feeding the Ten Billion: Plants and Population Growth (Cambridge University Press).
- Most life in the oceans depends directly or indirectly either on coral reefs or on plankton. Most coral reefs are expected to be dead (and replaced by algae) by the middle of the current century, and key plankton varieties are also severely affected by acidification. About 20% of all animal proteins consumed by humans originate in the oceans. Almost none of that will still be available in two or three decades from now.
- The population reduction will also be much more extreme in that scenario as increased climate change combined with widespread societal collapse would make it impossible to feed many more than half a billion people.
- Due to famine, civil war, disasters, the spread of tropical diseases to formerly not-tropical areas, and the antibiotics resistance crisis.
- It would obviously become very low in the Greater Dystopia of global societal collapse.
- A simulator is available here: https://www.ined.fr/en/everything_about_population/population-games/tomorrow-population/
- Ha-Joon Chang (2010). 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism (London: Penguin).
- Giorgos Kallis et al. (2018). “Research on Degrowth”, Annual Review of Environment and Resources.
- See: Rent, Debt, and Power.
- See: Hans Binswanger (2013), The Growth Spiral: Money, Energy, and Imagination in the Dynamics of the Market Process (Heidelberg: Springer); and: Michael Hudson (2015), Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy (Petrolia: Counterpunch Books); as well as: Rent, Debt, and Power.
- See: Rent, Debt, and Power.
- Which doesn’t necessarily imply that any other type of economic system would be more able to handle economic decline. However, other economic systems are irrelevant here, as almost all countries have capitalist economies, even most of those that formally adhere to different economic ideologies.
- Geoffrey Hodgson (2015). Conceptualizing Capitalism: Institutions, Evolution, Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
- Idem, 259.
- On the essential parasitic nature of capitalism and the impossibility of “green capitalism”, see also: Christopher Wright & Daniel Nyberg (2015), Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations: Processes of Creative Self-Destruction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
- Safa Motesharrei, Jorge Rivas, & Eugenia Kalnay (2014). “Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies”, Ecological Economics 101: 90-102.
- See: Rent, Debt, and Power.
- 夫腹飢不得食，膚寒不得衣，雖慈母不能保其子，君安能以有其民哉！明主知其然也，故務民於農桑，薄賦斂，廣畜積，以實倉廩，備水旱，故民可得而有也。(食貨志 §17. My translation.)
- 梁惠王上 §3.
- In case of patents there is an additional reason for abolition: imagine that some company invents a technology that could save the world, but demands so much money for it that it cannot be used sufficiently…
- In case of copyrights abolition might be too extreme, but copyrights should be non-transferable and last only for a fairly short time. On the other hand, I doubt that in the Lesser Dystopia anyone really would be bothered about copyrights – there would be more pressing problems – so it might be easier to just get rid of them.
- There is a common myth spread by the propaganda wing of the FIRE sector (i.e. mainstream economists) that lending by banks makes investment by companies possible, and therefore, that banks play an economically important role. Reality is different, however. Banks almost never lend money for investment (and never have). The only real purpose of lending by banks is to make people, companies, and governments indebted to them so they can rake in interest payments. Lending is profitable business. That’s why unregulated banking pushes loans even on people who cannot be expected to repay, which (among other factors) lead to the 2008 Great Recession. See also: Rent, Debt, and Power.
- Feeding the needy does not necessarily mean giving them food, of course. They can also be given money to buy food, in which case the state’s responsibility to feed the needy is effectively just another social welfare program.
- If average life expectancy would be 74, then someone at the age of 73 could – on average! – still expect to live one more year, while someone at the age of 20 could expect to live 54 more years. So a 20-year-old has 54 times as much at stake as a 73-year-old, and consequently, the 20-year-old’s vote should have 54 times the weight.
- This will become even more important if policies to reduce population size are successful as the most direct effect thereof will be a smaller percentage of young people in the population.
- See also: Crisis and Inertia (5) – Derailing a Speeding Train.
- On a side note, I have always thought that a conservative who isn’t an environmentalist is either a hypocrite or utterly ignorant.
- But again, let’s not jump to conclusions. I’ll have more to say about this in future chapters in this series.