Tim Watkins today published a superb essay on our overshoot predicament. It’s enough to temporarily restore one’s faith in humanity to find someone who thinks and writes as clearly as Watkins.
Britain has – apparently – been thrown into crisis overnight. Meanwhile across the channel, French president Macron is desperately trying to extinguish the flames of another weekend of mass protests that have now spread to Belgium and Holland. In Eastern Europe the hard-right are gaining support; even undermining the previously untouchable Angela Merkel’s power base in the former East Germany. Across the Atlantic meanwhile, the lines between deranged Democrats and MAGA nationalists are being drawn in readiness for America’s second civil war. We are surely living through the greatest crisis in modern history.
Well, yes indeed we are. But everything set out in the first paragraph is no more than the froth on the beer. These political spasms are merely the outward manifestation of a human catastrophe that has been decades in the making.
The use of the term “climate change” to describe these catastrophes is deceptive. If we were looking at our predicament in totality, we would include these crises alongside climate change as a series of (often interacting) sub-sets of a much greater problem… let’s call it the “human impact crisis.”
Crucially, by focussing solely on a changing climate, we can exercise a form of psychological denial in which human civilisation is able to continue chasing infinite growth on a finite planet while yet-to-be-invented technologies are deployed to magically heal the damage that our over-consumptive lifestyles are having on the human habitat.
The focus on climate change also permits us to avoid any examination of those human activities that increasingly stand in the way of the bright green technological future we keep promising ourselves. Shortages in a range of key resources, including several rare earths, cobalt, lithium, chromium, zinc, gold and silver are very likely to materialise in the next decade if Western countries get anywhere close to their targets for switching to renewable electricity and electric cars (even though even these are just a fraction of what would be required to decarbonise the global economy).
Energy is an even bigger problem. For the first time since the dark ages, humanity is switching from high-density energy sources (nuclear, coal, gas and oil) to ultra-low density energy sources (tide, wind, wave and solar). We are – allegedly – choosing to do this. However, because we have depleted fossil fuels on a low-hanging fruit basis, it is costing us more in both energy and money to maintain the energy needed to power the global economy. As more of our energy has to be channelled into energy production (e.g. the hugely expensive Canadian bitumen sands and the US fracking industry) ever less energy is available to power the wider economy. This has forced us into a crisis I refer to as “Schrodinger’s renewables,” in which the technologies being deployed supposedly to wean us off fossil fuels end up merely being added in order to maintain sufficient economic growth to prevent the entire civilisation collapsing.
This, of course, brings us back to the increasingly heated debates in the US Congress, the UK Parliament and the streets of 100 French towns and cities. Economic growth is the fantasy that almost everyone is buying into as a solution to our predicament. Sure, some call it “green growth,” but it isn’t. In reality it is, and always was central bank growth. Why? Because every unit of currency in circulation in the West was created with interest attached. In such a system, we either grow the economy or we inflate the value currency back to something more in line with the real economy. The former is impossible and the latter is devastating… which is why central bankers around the world have been quietly panicking for the best part of a decade.
The broader problem, however, is that the proposed solutions from the populists are no more likely to result in another round of economic growth simply because western civilisation is already well past the point of overshoot. China – the place where most of the jobs went and where most of the stuff we consume is made – already consumes half of the world’s coal, copper, steel, nickel and aluminium. It also consumes nearly two-thirds of the world’s concrete. To grow at just 3.5 percent would require that China consume all of the world’s reserves of those resources by 2038 – at which point it would also be consuming a quarter of the world’s oil and uranium and half of the world’s grain harvest. The impossibility of this is what people mean when they use the word “unsustainable” to describe our situation.
Nevertheless, even supposedly green parties cling to the promotion of economic growth as an electoral strategy. Rather than admit the impossibility of further growth, however, they reach instead for some mythical “green growth” that will supposedly follow the industrial scale deployment of non-renewable renewable energy harvesting technologies like wind turbines and solar panels that require fossil fuels in their manufacture , and for which the planet lacks sufficient material reserves. Promising de-growth is, however, politically toxic in the current climate.
Politics matter, of course. In a future of economic contraction it is far better to be governed consensually by people who understand the predicament and who plan a route to deindustrialisation that has as few casualties as possible on the way down… one reason not to keep voting for parties that dole out corporate welfare at the top while driving those at the bottom to destitution. That road tends to end with guillotines and firing squads.
For all of its passion and drama, however, the role of politics in our current predicament is somewhat akin to the choice of footwear when setting out to climb a mountain. Ideally you want to choose a pair of stout climbing boots; but nobody is offering those. For now the choice is between high heels and flip-flops to climb the highest mountain we have ever faced. If we are lucky, the political equivalent a half decent pair of training shoes might turn up, but while the world is focussed on economic growth; that is the best we can hope for… and we still have to climb the mountain whatever shoes we wear.