Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All
Michael Shellenberger has been fighting for a greener planet for decades. He helped save the world’s last unprotected redwoods. He co-created the predecessor to today’s Green New Deal. And he led a successful effort by climate scientists and activists to keep nuclear plants operating, preventing a spike of emissions.
But in 2019, as some claimed “billions of people are going to die,” contributing to rising anxiety, including among adolescents, Shellenberger decided that, as a lifelong environmental activist, leading energy expert, and father of a teenage daughter, he needed to speak out to separate science from fiction.
Despite decades of news media attention, many remain ignorant of basic facts. Carbon emissions peaked and have been declining in most developed nations for over a decade. Deaths from extreme weather, even in poor nations, declined 80 percent over the last four decades. And the risk of Earth warming to very high temperatures is increasingly unlikely thanks to slowing population growth and abundant natural gas.
Curiously, the people who are the most alarmist about the problems also tend to oppose the obvious solutions.
What’s really behind the rise of apocalyptic environmentalism? There are powerful financial interests. There are desires for status and power. But most of all there is a desire among supposedly secular people for transcendence. This spiritual impulse can be natural and healthy. But in preaching fear without love, and guilt without redemption, the new religion is failing to satisfy our deepest psychological and existential need.
Key points from the interview:
It’s unhelpful, unscientific, and depressing to describe our problems in apocalyptic terms.
Doomers are angry depressed people who want the world to collapse.
Environmentalism fills a spiritual need within atheists. When you’re living a life of prosperity and you stop believing in god and think you’ll become worm food after you die, you ask yourself what’s the purpose of life?
There is no 6th mass extinction underway. We are only causing 0.001% of species to go extinct each year. It is a problem that we’ve reduced wild animals by 50% since 1970 but the solution is to end poverty.
People are overreacting to Amazon deforestation.
CO2 emissions in advanced countries have been falling for years.
Nobel price winning economist William Nordhaus has shown that 4 degrees temperature rise is optimal considering the benefits of burning fossil energy and the costs of climate change; it’s a good thing we’re only going to experience 3 degrees rise thanks to us switching from coal to clean and amazingly abundant natural gas.
Nothing bad is going to happen at 3 or 4 degrees temperature rise, nor will it remove the flood control system that protects my house in Berkeley. The only bad thing that might happen at 4 degrees is we grow less food, but that can be solved by providing tractors, irrigation and fertilizer to farmers in poor countries.
The Netherlands has proven that sea level rise is not a problem for rich countries.
Eating less meat will not help climate change nor improve your health. We evolved to eat meat and CAFO’s have reduced our use of land for livestock by an area equivalent to Alaska.
People wanting to lower their impact should drive a used car and fly less.
Cheap abundant energy is the source of our well being.
Renewable energy has too low power density to support our lifestyle. If you want to reduce climate change you should support nuclear energy.
Using more energy is good for people and nature because it reduces the consumption of materials.
The solution to environmental problems is to bring poor people up to our standard of living.
To summarize what I think is Shellenberger’s message:
A modern affluent lifestyle is good for the environment and is enabled by abundant low cost energy.
Renewable energy does not have sufficient power density, we need fossil and nuclear energy.
There are serious environmental problems but helping poor countries achieve a similar lifestyle to ours will solve many of them, and if we’re wealthy we can cope with the remaining problems.
I think Shellenberger is intelligent and is correct on many of his points. Unfortunately the points he’s wrong on are fatal:
Affordable fossil energy will deplete much quicker than he assumes. Our economic problems of the last 12 years are evidence that power down is underway.
If I’m wrong on the depletion rate of affordable fossil energy, our economic growth will be constrained by other non-renewable resources.
Nuclear energy was once a good idea, but not now that fossil energy depletion is weakening economies and governments thus making good governance a too risky bet. Nuclear also doesn’t solve our dependency on diesel for tractors, combines, trucks, trains, and ships.
The consequences of our current 1 degree temperature rise are already dire due to the loss of ice. The 3 degrees Shellenberger is comfortable with will create a planet incompatible with modern civilization due to the impact on food production and sea level rise. Even if I’m wrong, we won’t have the wealth to cope.
People like Michael Shellenberger, Eric Weinstein, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, and Yuval Noah Harari demonstrate that regardless of how intelligent or well educated you are, if you deny the reality of energy depletion, then most of your beliefs are probably wrong, because pretty much everything depends on energy.
Perhaps this is why Nate Hagens once likened discussing peak oil to eating a bad oyster.
James, proprietor of the insightful Megacancer blog, is a rare individual who understands the energy flows that drive the issues that matter:
why we exist
why we behave as we do
why we are in deep trouble
why nothing will stop our demise
His year-end essay is brilliant and I have pasted it in full below.
I agree with everything James said but I thought I would add a few Christmas bobbles that help me to be less angry about our predicament.
When our leaders, scientists, friends, and family do not support the only actions that might reduce future suffering, namely rapid population reduction and a planned contraction of the economy, I know the reason as James explains, is that we, like yeast and all other life, evolved to maximize energy flows.
While true this is not, at least for me, a sufficient explanation because unlike yeast, we are highly intelligent and capable of impressive intellectual feats. How can such an intelligent creature not use its brain to at least try to do the right thing?
The answer, of course, was provided by Dr. Ajit Varki and his Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory.
The smart ethical people we see doing the wrong thing each and every day, despite obvious science and evidence they are capable of understanding, do so because their brains evolved to deny unpleasant realities.
When I look with despair, for example, at COP25 where our best and brightest not only accomplished nothing (except burning a bunch of kerosene to fly there), they didn’t even honestly discuss the problem, we know that thermodynamics, as James explains, is driving the insanity, but we also know that it is evolved denial of reality that blocks their intelligence.
Denial makes our intelligence ineffective on every issue that matters, and thermodynamics, expressed through genetics, does not permit intelligence to exist without denial, so it is what it is, and there is no way out.
Humans are not evil, nor are they stupid, they just can’t see reality.
This holiday season I am grateful to be alive to witness and understand a rare event in the universe, and I’m thankful for good health, good food, a warm dry home, and caring friends and family.
“So this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over and a new one just begun…….. John Lennon
Undoubtedly you have struggled to consume some gradient and produce some entropy. Or maybe I should say “you all – plural” since its all of your cells that have created the shape-shifting and often grandiose “you “ within your brain to help your skin-enclosed system get around and get what it needs.
Hope your system is consuming much gradient this holiday season, your homeostasis is hunky-dory and your condition is one of great comfort and peace. I’m sure the new year will bring many surprises as you maneuver through the competitive landscape in search of new wealth-enhancing and energy-consuming opportunities. Provided below is a little commentary on our current predicament (also known as a rant).
The Universe as a single dense point of energy can be seen as the initial gradient. The Big Bang and inflation reduce the initial gradient as time and space expand according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Time and space are impossible without gradient dissipation. Gradient dissipation produces time and space and change. You can see this in a wrist watch which must dissipate gradient (battery/spring) to move and create a progression along a circular time line. The events of time can only occur because gradient can be dissipated and the heat can escape into the inflation of the Universe. Time is not possible without change (movement) or change in position which is inherent to the gradient dissipation process. Humans create time by burning energy gradient and dissipating it as heat. Like magnets aligning with the magnetic poles, all of life has evolved to align with the initial massive dissipation (Big Bang) as residual dissipating phenomena. There is no other way for life to behave than the way it does, consuming gradient. If species deviated from their role as reducers of gradients, they would simply disappear. They are constantly being realigned as gradient reducers in order to remain as dissipative structures and stand-out from the less active background. An individual’s “success” in life, in acquiring and consuming resources or having many offspring is the thermodynamic success of the Universe which uses and shapes humans and other life for its dissipative bidding. You think you are successful, but you have been used to further the apparent goals of an expanding Universe. It’s no accident that successful dissipation bolsters your self-image and gives you a good feeling as your homeostasis is maintained. More money, more food, more investments, more children, more dopamine, more………. it all feels good and that’s no accident. The Universe leads you through life in an endless quest for more free energy gradients and after each acquisition the happiness seems to fade until another is found.
All behavior and structure of life comes from and aligns with the Big Bang and expansion of the Universe which humans have logically described with the laws of thermodynamics and entropy. Humans and all other life are captives of these laws and struggle daily to acquire energy to create motion, structure and time with the hydrosphere, atmosphere and open space acting as willing heat sinks. Any organism that attempts to practice “freewill”, that somehow deviates from the program, will find itself realigned with reality or eliminated from existence. Freewill is bounded overall by the requirement of reducing gradients and humans have evolved to eliminate gradient as quickly and efficiently as possible (deriving profit) for reproduction or growth. These requirements can be summed-up in the Maximum Power Principle and/or Maximum Entropy Production principles. Faster, more powerful vehicles, faster computers, faster jets, more economies of scale, burn more faster, more profit, more growth, more gradient reduced and electromagnetic radiation sent into space. Humans have evolved to be such intense competitors for energy that they can’t seem to “just say no” to save themselves. It was never meant that they would be able to “just say no”. Extinction takes care of dissipative structures that run their course through extinction. It is only natural that capitalism should be the dominant economic system when the collapse occurs since it slavishly maximizes growth even making spurious promises of future gradient availability in exchange for burning gradient today and creating population overshoot conditions. Some people wonder what -ism comes next. I believe it will be a pervasive state of natural “terrorism”, the type observed in nature where all life forms are one mistake away from becoming someone else’ s meal.
To name itself “Homo sapiens” is only indicative of the hubris of humans as they slowly commit suicide by gradient reduction. “Smart” or “sapient” is defined by most humans as the ability to create tools to break open new gradients for dissipation while depriving other living organisms the same opportunity. Humans seem unable to imagine any other parameters of success besides consumption, growth and reproduction. No surprises there, it’s what complex dissipatives do. So, as the chimps fight in Washington, D.C. (mostly about power and money – dissipative matters) and the average family wonders how much money (gradient) they’ll have to spend to travel (motion) to Disney World and have a good (time), the biosphere degrades into a lifeless necrosphere similar to the slime found at the bottom of a yeast petri dish that has eaten itself into oblivion. Eventually only dust devils and their larger brethren, the hurricanes and typhoons will raise the formerly vital dust beyond its gravitational resting place as the Universe continues to expand without even tallying the insignificant contributions from the Earth’s extinct dissipative spinbots.
Humans should never think of themselves as smart or intelligent, they’re simply a thermodynamic event maintaining homeostasis through gradient reduction. Their entire mentality serves energy/wealth acquisition, consumption and reproduction. Being a social mammal (obtaining energy as a group) they are hierarchically organized and are constantly striving to improve their social standing by whatever means possible (if they haven’t yet seen the futility in such efforts). Those able to control the most money/energy are admired and envied by their sycophants while those with less success are regularly scorned and often deemed unworthy of reproduction or even living. Just as the human civilization will enslave, consume and/or deprive other species of their ability to live and reproduce, so too wealthy humans will enslave less avaricious humans and use them for self-enrichment.
Have you been transported to the nucleolus (school) for the last twelve-years to have your brain refined for information and tool use? You are an RNA destined for one of the the technological cells. Don’t be late. Did you get your college degree? Are you ready to function as an RNA “job” within a civilizational cancer for the rest of your life before you can retire to await the personal cancer your toxic “sapient” system has given you? I assure you that your local medical establishment and undertaker are ready to provide in your time of need and desperation if you can provide a life’s worth of savings in exchange (usually extracted in the form of monthly health insurance premiums the paying of which has put you into an early grave.) Are you satisfied that an oligarchy of bankers, government and corporations have initial claim upon society’s nutrients and thin the blood currency for the remainder of society which struggle to feed themselves, their cells and their vehicles? Is that the cost of survival vis-a-vis other equally exploitative nations? Perhaps if the thinning of the blood by inflation was not enough, the taxes and interest, fees and penalties are acceptable costs for enduring life as an expendable, productive molecule attached to an hedonically enhancing smart (not sapient) phone. And now that there’s not enough to share with the worker dissipatives, the electronic prison takes shape with various surveillance, monitoring, compliance, social credit, FICO scores, 5G and facial recognition.
Since the energy horizon is shrinking, those endowed with rights from which the rest have been alienated, will try to compensate for the loss of energy by introducing new “savings” to the system, a few low-cost behavioral and structural changes to hold society together for a while like a rationing of essentials and sharing. As the existing system is already strapped for metabolic energy and any major disruptions threaten collapse, a full conversion to “renewable energy” is not seen as workable, especially when we will likely need even more energy to heal wounds inflicted by an increasingly chaotic climate. We will eventually be overwhelmed by the inflicted damages and inherent contradictions of our “Black Friday” hyper-dissipative existence. Our slowly disintegrating arrangement will go extinct one way or another without a source of clean energy that meets current metabolic needs and provides enough net energy to re-stabilize the climate. The resource bill (if the technologies even existed) to accomplish this self-saving task will grow faster than the interest on the Federal debt and in any case the climate destabilization has likely already achieved positive-feedback, escape-velocity, well beyond any feasible means of addressing it. In the meantime those at the universities are earning their six-figure salaries arguing over political correctness as if being nice to each other and erasing or rewriting sordid chapters in human history is the challenge of the day.
And where will we find our CEOs, government officials and military when push comes to shove in the international competition for food and energy? With all the courage they can muster they will scurry into their fortified bunkers to wait-out the “winnable” nuclear war only to re-emerge when the stinkadelic cheese of next years’ appropriations comes wafting through their gold-standard air purification systems.
Let’s hope for a happy new year with smart algorithms, lightning fast trading computers, a massive pump-and-dump and lots of resources stripped away from those that can least afford it. I recommend working harder in the new year so we can eliminate the gradients and get to where we’re going faster.
I observe that people fighting for our species to acknowledge its predicament, like Extinction Rebellion, are as much in denial as the people they oppose.
In his last section, Watkins suggests that the environmental movement has a choice to make between two paths. This implies that they understand what is going on. Here I disagree. I think genetic reality denial blocks almost everyone, including environmentalists, from understanding what is going on, as Varki’s MORT theory predicts.
An an aside, there is a Canadian federal election in a few days. I read the platforms of all the parties. Not one has a clue what is going on. I refuse to vote for idiots in denial.
Firstly, there is no net zero because humans have failed to figure out a viable means of capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide for the several centuries that would be required after we ceased burning fossil fuels to restore the climate to something akin to conditions today. At this point, no doubt, some readers will object that trees and soils are natural carbon sinks; and so we might plant more trees and restore more soils. The question, however, is which trees and soils, and to what end? Few trees live beyond a century (especially when some idiot comes along and harvests them to use as “green” biofuel). And when a tree dies and falls to the floor, it dumps all of the carbon back into the atmosphere. Similar problems affect attempts at soil restoration since any further use will unlock the carbon stored there.
There is, you will be pleased to know, one natural process that can sequester and lock up all of the carbon that we have dumped into the atmosphere in the course of the last three centuries. It involves a warmer and wetter climate washing nutrients off the land and out to sea; where plankton and algae blooms can flourish and multiply; giving off noxious hydrogen sulphide – which causes “red tide events” – as a by-product. As these microscopic plants die, they sink to the ocean floor where, along with the carcasses of any marine creature that happened into the oxygen-starved red waters beneath the surface, they gradually decompose into a glutinous mud. Over time, layers and layers of this hydrocarbon-rich mud will pile up. And over centuries it will be subsumed beneath the Earth’s crust, where it will be heated and compressed beneath an impervious layer of rock that prevents it from leaking to the surface. With the carbon sequestered in this way, over millions of years the climate will cool once more.
My more alert readers will be aware that the process that I just described is the one in which the fossil fuels that we have been burning for the past 300 years were created in the first place. As far as I am aware, it is the only process currently known that can lock up large volumes of carbon dioxide for the geological time period required to repair the damage that we have already done.
There is enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere already to raise the temperature above 3 degrees over pre-industrial levels; so that even if we ceased burning fossil fuels today, it is highly unlikely that the global economy and a population approaching 8 billion can survive the devastation. Indeed, those at the more pessimistic end of the spectrum argue that we will be lucky if there are any humans at all on Earth by 2030. But even knowing that the current debate is between those who think things are about to get very, very bad and those who think they are about to become fatal will not be enough to prevent humanity from continuing to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The reason is simple, the only way in which we can support a global population that is at least eight times the sustainable level; is to use fossil-powered industrial agriculture on a global scale. And while switching the diet to lower the volume of cow belches will make an insignificant difference, the fact remains that fossil-powered global plant farming is still a major source of greenhouse gases. Nor do we dare dispense with the fossil-powered global supply chains that have saved the largest part of humanity from the kind of famines that were commonplace just a few decades ago. Growing excess food in favourable regions and transporting it to less favourable ones has always been the means by which humans combatted famine. The only difference today is that we do it on a global scale; meaning that disruption in any one supply chain can rapidly undermine the entire system.
At this point, of course, the techo-utopian journalists, politicians and protestors will complain that I am ignoring renewable energy and the fourth industrial revolution. Once again, the reason for this objection is largely a product of an education system that is not fit for purpose. In a recent article on the Peak Prosperity website, scientist Chris Martenson refers to the sheer scale of the task that would be involved just in substituting (i.e. ignoring all of the technical engineering challenges involved) the quantity of energy we get from fossil fuels with renewable energy:
“Suppose we agree on the goal to entirely replace fossil fuel energy by 2050. (We’re going to have to do it by some point, because oil, coal and natural gas are all depleting finite resources.)
“With 2050 as a starting point we can run some simple math.
“We start by converting the three main fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – into a common unit: the “millions of tons of oil equivalent” or Mtoe.
“A million tons of oil = 1 Mtoe, obviously. And there’s an amount of coal, if burned that has the same energy as 1 Mtoe. Ditto for natural gas. If we add up all of the fossil fuels burned in a given year, then we can express that as a single number in the many thousands of Mtoe.
“Roger Pilke has run the math for us in his recent article in Forbes:
‘In 2018 the world consumed 11,743 Mtoe in the form of coal, natural gas and petroleum. The combustion of these fossil fuels resulted in 33.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. In order for those emissions to reach net-zero, we will have to replace about 12,000 Mtoe of energy consumption expected for 2019’…
“So, what would it take to replace those 12,000 Mtoe with alternative fuels by 2050?
“Pilke answers that for us:
Another useful number to know is that there are 11,051 days left until January 1, 2050.
To achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions globally by 2050 thus requires the deployment of >1 Mtoe of carbon-free energy consumption (~12,000 Mtoe/11,051 days) every day, starting tomorrow and continuing for the next 30+ years…
“But that’s only half of the story.
“We’d also have to decommission and retire an equivalent 1 Mtoe amount of still-functioning fossil fuel property, plant and equipment. Do you have any idea how much money and embedded capital is contained in all the world’s current energy infrastructure — including our cars and homes — that’s built around fossil fuel use?
“Somehow, the world would have to replace the equivalent of the energy contained within 2.4 Ultra Massive crude ships. Every. Single. Day. For 11,000 days straight, without missing a single day. A 7,000 mile long cargo train of ultra massive ships retired at the rate of 2.4 per day for the next 30 years…
“What would that take? Again from Pilke:
So the math here is simple: to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, the world would need to deploy 3 [brand new] nuclear plants worth of carbon-free energy every two days, starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050. At the same time, a nuclear plant’s worth of fossil fuels would need to be decommissioned every day, starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050.
I’ve found that some people don’t like the use of a nuclear power plant as a measuring stick. So we can substitute wind energy as a measuring stick. Net-zero carbon dioxide by 2050 would require the deployment of ~1500 wind turbines (2.5 MW) over ~300 square miles, every day starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050.”
It has taken a Herculean effort in the developed western states just to deploy a relatively small number of wind turbines and solar panels into our electricity generation mix. The idea that we are going to replace the far larger fossil fuel consumption in transport, building temperature control, industry and agriculture is no more than magic thinking.
This is where the charge of hypocrisy that is often levelled against Extinction Rebellion hits home. It is doubtful that more than a handful of the protestors is prepared to make even a fraction of the lifestyle changes that would be involved just to lower the rate at which we are dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Certainly some will be prepared to give up flying, stop eating meat, use a refillable water bottles and put on an extra layer rather than turn the heating up. Mobile phones are a different matter – even though the data centres on which they depend are among the most polluting buildings on Earth. Few, one suspects, will be prepared to take the radical actions such as giving up the right to have children in favour of the birth licensing system that a rapid shift to a zero-carbon economy implies.
In the end, Extinction Rebellion is facing the same dilemma that has plagued the environmental movement from the start:
Should it spell out the enormous effort and sacrifice involved in changing course – and thereby risk alienating the majority of those who need to be won over? Or;
Should it pretend – despite all the evidence to the contrary – that a few windmills and solar panels will allow us to continue growing our planet-destroying economy without even pausing to draw a breath.
My fear is that – like the various green parties around the world – this latest manifestation of environmentalism will take the second option so as not to scare the horses. And if those at the gloomier end of the spectrum are correct and that we only have 10 years left, this may not be such a bad thing; after all, they say that dying in your sleep is far preferable than consciously looking death in the face. Either way, one can count on one hand the number of protest movements that have achieved the change they wanted to bring about. The enormity of the predicament does not change this fact. The sad reality is that we are all prisoners of the very system that is killing us; dependent upon it for the food, water, clothing and shelter that sustain us even as it destroys the habitat we depend upon. We could end it tomorrow if only the majority of us chose to stop playing the game; but the sacrifice is too great… and few of us are prepared to take the hit while others continue to get a free pass.
And so, while I salute those who have taken to the streets this month (my son is among them and I am proud that he is standing up for what he believes in) I would also caution them that the changes that are coming are not the ones they want; still less the ones the leaders of their movement are pretending they can have. Our current civilisation can be compared to the last moments of the Titanic – holed below the waterline and destined to sink into a watery grave. Most of those who are protesting are merely akin to the frightened passengers begging a Captain and crew to respond to a situation that they have already lost control of. The sensible few among the protestors will look to those who are assembling the lifeboats. But the majority – whether they believe the emergency is real or not – will soon meet their tragic end. And protesting icebergs and reckless Captains will do nothing to save them – or us – now!
Tad begins by pointing out that a recently update climate model is predicting more than 1 degree of additional warming than the previous model for our current CO2 levels. That’s bad news but seems consistent with what we observe every day in the news.
Then Tad gets to his main point:
…since 2004, the annual increases of total electricity consumption in the world have outpaced all electricity production by all PV arrays in the world…
This means that the Green Queen is not only not keeping up, she’s not even in the race. Except for one year, 2009, when the economy crashed.
And we haven’t even begun to replace the other 84% of fossil energy that we use for non-electricity applications like heating, fertilizer, tractors, trucks, trains, ships, planes, mining, steel, cement, glass, etc..
Thus, there are no other paths but to shrink, shrink more and transit away from fossil fuels.
Once again I observe that facts don’t matter and denial defines our species.
One of your demands is that official bodies tell the Truth and declare a climate emergency. You were told by the IPCC last year that humanity had 12 years before it would be too late to do anything. That was a LIE. The fact is that it was and is already far too late to prevent global catastrophe. There is NO carbon budget left. These realities were apparent even back in 2013 following the IPCC fifth assessment report, when the only scenarios the IPCC could imagine where disaster could be avoided required time travel into the past or technologies which did not exist and certainly could not be scaled up even if they did exist (as expressed by climate scientists Dr Kevin Anderson and Dr Hugh Hunt). The science based facts behind these assertions are summarised here: 6.
Truth is determined by careful and comprehensive collection of accurate data, by hard objective scientific scrutiny using the principles of Physics, Chemistry and Biology, including mathematical analyses, which must not be polluted by political or economic vested interests. The IPCC processes had long been watered down by political interference, which seriously underestimated the magnitude and speed of global warming, in order to justify foot dragging by national so-called “leaders”.
The reason we have not yet experienced the full horrific consequences of 415ppm CO2 (in reality, there is a much higher CO2 equivalent, around 500ppm) is because of time lag due to thermal inertia. Atmospheric temperature rises have been buffered by the cool oceans and the melting ice masses. Those buffers are being exceeded, they are being overwhelmed, as every second passes. If you think the unprecedented shocking weather extremes over the past 15 years were disastrous at barely 1 degree Celsius atmospheric global average temperature rise, there is far more and far worse to come. More than 4 degrees rise is irreversibly baked into the cake based on EXISTING greenhouse gas concentrations. That is as certain as the law of gravity. Hell is coming no matter what. The best thing you can do is get ready for it. But time is short and you must act NOW before the imminent global economic collapse steals away all your options.
Let us consider the absolute best imaginable outcomes for your group. What will happen if you are immediately 100% effective today in achieving all your social and policy goals?
Even if all carbon emissions cease today, the world is still committed to more than 4 degrees Celsius eventual global average temperature rise which will render large scale agriculture impossible. This means civilisation, the hallmark of which is the existence of cities, will no longer be possible. Small scale agriculture in a few selected climate resilient pockets may still be possible.
Large scale carbon sequestration is a fantasy and will never be undertaken because our bogus economic system will not allow for it and even if we can develop those technologies, we will not have the energy resources to do it. Geoengineering insanity will cause more problems than they address.
Immediate cessation of emissions will also mean immediate curtailment of global food production which is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels. This will cause billions to starve. In the medical management of patients, knowingly inflicting harm is not an option. However allowing nature to take its course (in some cases – such as untreatable terminal cancer) is acceptable, indeed unavoidable. As a matter of course, billions will die this century due to oil/resource depletion, ecosystem collapse and climate catastrophe and the consequences thereof (warfare, epidemics etc). Inevitable near term economic collapse is also absolutely certain due to institutional fraud and impending energy collapse. It is those events which will most effectively and drastically curtail carbon emissions, not your activism.
There is absolutely nothing you can do about the looming general die-off. You can however take steps to reduce the likelihood that you and your family and friends will die horribly in the next few decades. Please note that nobody’s survival is guaranteed. All anyone can do is increase the probability of their survival.
The remainder of Chia’s letter is a little too over the top with hyperbole for my taste but the gist of his advice to extinction rebellion members is probably correct: It’s too late to save civilization, focus on saving your members.
Here is another post by Geoffrey Chia that I thought was pretty good.
In tandem with consciousness, humanity developed a deeply embedded penchant for denial. It’s a terrific survival strategy that evolved to help blind us to the pain of animals we hunt and eat, the terror of the victims of wars we wage on our neighbors, the monstrosity of slavery, the injustice of male chauvinism, the senselessness of death, and ultimately the fearsome gaping maw of meaninglessness in the vast unfeeling universe.
Our denial, entrenched in our genes, also enables – even requires – us to believe fantasies, to embrace spirits, to shun truth, to subscribe to the illusion of free will, to follow charlatans, and to pretend our hopes and prayers can shape reality.
Fact: there exists no natural mechanism that will slow the acceleration of anthropogenic global heating in any timeframe useful to life on earth. It is only reasonable to expect that it’s going to get hotter and hotter, faster and faster, for at least hundreds of years. Even if anthropogenic emissions cease today or in a decade, heating will still increase at an accelerating rate. Amplifying feedbacks such as albedo and forest die off and methane release from melting permafrost combined with the longevity of CO2 already released assure an uninhabitable climate in the fairly near future.
Once you understand that greenhouse gases will continue to trap energy from the sun as long as they persist, everything else – climate sensitivity and latent ocean warming and inertia in the system – is so much hoohah. The idea that technology yet to be invented will remove CO2 is no better than a religious tenet, and it will never be deployed at a scale that matters given the vast quantities that have already been released (and continue to be released).
3. Humans are incapable of change
As convincing as the physical effects documented by science are, it’s also and crucially ever more irrefutable that humans are simply not equipped to behave any other way than to grow without voluntary restraint, until we deplete the resources we need to survive, and overwhelm the environment with pollution until it is so toxic that it is poisonous to virtually all forms of life. We are basically an invasive species with no more self restraint than yeast.
This is where even the most dire voices about climate change often err. It’s not libertarianism, or capitalism, or western civilization that has led us to this predicament – rather it is humanity’s exponential growth, in numbers and complexity, in technological capability, medical advances, and consumption. The imperative to grow and consume is primordial and we cannot eliminate that biological trait despite our desire to believe in free will.
4. Apocaloptimists attacking doomers – as worse than deniers Overwhelming evidence – that impacts are faster and sooner than predicted, that tipping points have been irrevocably crossed, that amplifying feedbacks are beyond human influence, that global warming is run amuk with no natural mechanisms or magic technology to ameliorate inexorable heating – is leading more people to conclude that civilization (if not our species and most others) is doomed. Right now, there is an increasingly vocal contingent who are vigorously attacking the nebulous doomer community. Much of the sniping and scapegoating begins with the hostile accusation that doomers, merely by existing, are encouraging inaction. This is patently absurd, since inaction has been and remains the default position ever since humans first noticed that burning fuel has consequences. No contribution by doomers towards defeatism accounts for the ever-increasing Keeling curve that measures CO2 concentrations, or the refusal of governments to meet climate treaty goals.
5. No fun
An especially pernicious assertion by this “shoot the messenger” crowd is the common claim that doomers are secretly desirous of a catastrophic end for humanity. I doubt there is a single doomer who finds any comfort whatsoever in either the inevitability of extinction or their own individual role in it. Every doomer I’ve ever interacted with, and there have been many, has agonized and mourned – and some have even gone crazy with grief and guilt and committed suicide. It’s not fun being a doomer, which is why there are so few of us.
Many doomers began as former devoted progressives, who fought long and hard before awakening with enormous ambivalence to the sad verity that humanity is not going to change. I personally learned about the tenacity of denial the hard way, first from trying to alert the world to the death of trees (a massacre that seemed perfectly obvious to me over a decade ago but invited unending ridicule) and second, from encountering so many “light” doomers – who will forever remain convinced, no matter how much archeological evidence refutes it, that the noble primitive and peaceful and sustainable indigenous savage was ever really a thing.
A year ago I wrote an essay that tried to capture the depth and breadth of our predicament, and that offered a simple idea for increasing awareness, gratefulness, and temperance.
If you’re not an engineer the essay may be a painful read because my goal was to communicate maximum content with minimum words in a single sentence, and it thus reads like a computer program.
Nevertheless I like the essay because it touches on, and integrates, every topic that citizens should understand, but almost none do.
The essay did not get much traction when it was published, so I’m recycling it today for the pleasure and enlightenment of the millions of new readers that now follow this blog.
I make the bold claim that this essay holds the all-time world’s record for the highest number of important ideas in a single sentence, and the highest ratio of important ideas to words in any essay, with 86 important ideas and 1290 words it’s ratio is 6.6%.
I’m confident that readers will not be able to find another essay that unseats my world record, however if I’m proven wrong, I will publicly admit that I have the same denial genes as the rest of you monkeys.
So if we ever decide to do something effective about climate change (assuming it’s not already too late due to self-reinforcing feedback loops) then that solution must include some combination of a lower standard of living and a lower population.
When was the last time you heard a leader or climate scientist speak with such clarity?
Probably never because most are in denial as explained by Ajit Varki’s theory:
And you reading and understanding this essay is a miracle, but we don’t need God to explain this miracle, just physics and biology, plus billions of years and trillions of planets to enable several low probability events to occur:
To sum all of this up, if you have the rare ability to break through the human tendency to deny reality, then you should be in awe of being alive to witness and understand this rare event in the universe, and you should be grateful for the good food and other comforts we enjoy.
Today’s global consumption of fossil fuels now stands at roughly five times what it was in the 1950s, and one-and-half times that of the 1980s when the science of global warming had already been confirmed and accepted by governments with the implication that there was an urgent need to act. Tomes of scientific studies have been logged in the last several decades documenting the deteriorating biospheric health, yet nothing substantive has been done to curtail it. More CO2 has been emitted since the inception of the UN Climate Change Convention in 1992 than in all of human history. CO2 emissions are 55% higher today than in 1990. Despite 20 international conferences on fossil fuel use reduction and an international treaty that entered into force in 1994, manmade greenhouse gases have risen inexorably. If it has not dawned on you by now, our economic and political systems are ill-equipped to deal with this existential threat. Existing international agreements are toothless because they have no verification or enforcement and do not require anything remotely close to what is needed to avoid catastrophe. The 20 warmest years on record have been in the past 22 years, with the top four in the past four years, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Ice loss from Antarctica has sextupled since the 1970s and Greenland’s pace of ice loss has increased fourfold since 2003. The Arctic ocean has lost 95% of its old ice and total volume of ice in September, the lowest ice month of the year, has declined by 78% between 1979 and 2012. With grim implications for the future, Earth’s air conditioner —the cryosphere— is melting away.
Douglas Theobald, in his study at Brandeis University, calculated that there is less than a 1 in 102,860 chance that all life did not arise from a common ancestor. In other words, humans are related to all life on Earth and share much of their DNA with other organisms. Despite earning the title of ‘superpredator‘, humans are dependent on intact and functioning ecosystems. Our chances for long-term survival are ultimately tied to the health of the planet, yet we are carrying out ecocide on a planetary scale. Being a mere 0.01% of all life on Earth, humans have managed to destroy 50% of wild animals in just the last fifty years and 83% since the dawn of civilization around 3,000 B.C.. Who knows how many plant species have gone extinct:
Hawaii is losing plant species at the rate of one per year, when it should be roughly one every 10,000 years. “We have a term called ‘plant-blindness’… People simply don’t see them; they view greenery as an indistinguishable mass, rather than as thousands of genetically separate and fragile individuals…”
The bedrock of our food, clean water and energy is biodiversity, but its loss now rivals the impacts of climate change. Without biodiversity, our food sources, both plants and animals, will succumb to diseases. Microbes and hundreds of different life forms interact to make soils fertile. Without them, soils will be barren and unable to support life. Monocultures can only be held together through artificial means(fossil fuels, inorganic fertilizer and toxic pesticides) and are highly vulnerable to diseases, yet industrial monoculture farming continues to dominate the globe. Most Worrisome are the recent studies indicating that biodiversity loss raises the risk of ‘extinction cascades’. Insect numbers, the base of the terrestrial food chain, are in steep decline and starfish, a common keystone species in coastal ecosystems, are facing extinction due to some sort of wasting disease likely caused by climate change:
“Many of these outbreaks are heat sensitive. In the lab, sea stars got sick sooner and died faster in warmer water… A warming ocean could increase the impact of infectious diseases like this one…We could be watching the extinction of what was a common species just 5 years ago.”
These disturbing headlines indicate to me that the Sixth Mass Extinction is gathering pace and the real stock market underlying our very existence and survival is crashing before our eyes!!!
Humans recognized decades ago the threats they are now facing, yet nothing was done due to political inaction and industry malfeasance which continues to this very day. The scientists who wrote The Limits to Growth decades ago were expecting our political institutions to take action back in the 1970s, but they were met with ridicule and now we stand at the doorstep of modern civilization’s collapse. Political inaction and regulatory capture by the fossil fuel industry appear to be intractable barriers that have condemned the human race to a hellish future. Anyone waiting for some sort of seminal climate change event that is going to galvanize the world’s leaders into action will be tragically disappointed. If seeing the world’s coral reefs dying, its glaciers disappearing, permafrost melting, and the steady uptick in extreme weather events does not spur them to action, it is much too late to hope that any single event will ever do so. The time to act would have been before we were seeing all these environmental degradations and tipping points, not afterward. There is no way to put the CO2 genie back in the bottle. A myth that many uninformed people hold is that biospheric health will quickly bounce back after we humans get our act together. Nothing could be further from the truth. Much of the damage we are already seeing is irreversible on human time scales. Positive feedbacks were already occurring at less than 1°C of warming. Many carbon sinks are on the verge of becoming or have already become carbon sources. As we race toward a nightmarish future with no realistic way to stop, we leave behind a “forever legacy” that will haunt mankind for the rest of eternity.
I’ve watched a lot of nature/science documentaries in my life, and I’ve probably seen most of the good ones, but I say without hesitation that One Strange Rock is the best.
The producers and writers found a magical blend of spectacular settings on and off the planet, fabulous photography, inspirational multi-cultural stories, solid yet easy to understand science, and an important ecological message that is neither depressing nor ignorant of our peril.
With regard to the history and science of Earth’s life, they hit most of the important points everyone should know, got none of them wrong, and missed only a few key points (not least of which the significance of reality denial 🙂 ).
The only segment I did not like was the bit on why we must and will colonize other planets. That’s wishful thinking (aka denial) and is not going to happen, but understandable because that’s their gig. Otherwise very well done!
With regard to beauty and inspiration, they hit a home run, without being sickly sweet. If you don’t feel some joyous emotion watching this, you’re not alive.
This should be mandatory viewing for every student on the planet.
If I ever meet someone in the future who doesn’t understand why they should care, I will point them to One Strange Rock.
If anyone would like to view this documentary but can’t find it, send me a message on Facebook and I will help you.
From award-winning filmmaker Darren Aronofsky comes a mind-bending, thrilling journey that explores the fragility and wonder of planet Earth—one of the most peculiar, unique places in the universe.
One Strange Rock is the extraordinary story of Earth – our curiously calibrated, interconnected planet – and why it is special and uniquely brimming with life among a largely unknown but harsh cosmic arena. Anchoring the series is an elite group of astronauts who see Earth’s bigger picture; they provide unique perspectives and relate personal memoirs of our planet seen from space.
Hosted by Will Smith, One Strange Rock reveals the twists of fate that allow life to thrive on Earth.
Part 1: Gasp
For those privileged few who have seen Earth from space, the very first thing they notice is the thin blue line of atmosphere that clings to our planet and sustains life. How our planet creates and regulates that oxygen is a mind-blowing story involving a flying river, a global dust storm, collapsing glaciers and the most important creature you’ve never heard of. It’s an incredible chain of connections that reveal just how truly wondrous our home is. Everything connects, so life and planet breathe together. Astronaut host – Chris Hadfield
Part 2: Storm
Ever wonder how our planet got here? It was born in a cosmic storm and shaped by violence. Earth is a very lucky planet. We’re only here because of random collisions in a dangerous cosmos. They could have destroyed us, but instead, that violence constructed a planet from the rubble of the early solar system; gave us oceans in a bombardment from the heavens; and brought order to our world. Astronaut host – Nicole Stott.
Part 3: Shield
It’s a David and Goliath story — Earth’s relationship with its greatest threat: our seemingly benign sun. Hurling devastating particles and deadly radiation at us, the sun is the big violent boss of the solar system. Without several shields, one generated by our unique planetary core, another by our atmosphere, and a third by our interconnected weather systems, life on Earth never would have survived. Astronaut host – Jeff Hoffman.
Part 4: Genesis
Our rock is special; it’s alive. Though the building blocks of life are common across the universe, life is rare. What is it about Earth that sets it apart? This is the story of dynamic forces and crazy coincidences that took a bunch of dead ingredients and transformed them into something as wondrously intricate as life. And if it happened here, could it happen elsewhere? Astronaut host – Mae Jemison.
Part 5: Survival
Without the cycle of death and sacrifice, from cellular to planetary, life would not be here. From the deaths of stars to planetary scale mass extinctions and the sacrifice of individuals for a greater genetic good, this is the story of how life evolved hand in hand with death. Death drives evolution. It’s hardwired; from our cells to our landscapes, our colorful living planet is only possible thanks to it. Death leads to opportunity and biodiversity, which ironically ensures life on the planet is never wiped out. It’s not enough for our planet to be habitable; it also has to be lethal. Astronaut host – Jerry Linenger.
Part 6: Escape
Is it possible for intelligent life to escape destruction either from the planet or ourselves? Or are we destined for extinction like 99.9 percent of all species before us? Our best chance of survival may be to escape Earth and build another colony somewhere else. But there are real barriers: space radiation, microgravity and the bacteria inside us. And our DNA is coded for the conditions here on Earth, so if we ever manage to colonize another planet, those who are born there might evolve into another species. Astronaut host – Chris Hadfield.
Part 7: Terraform
Ever since life emerged, microbes, plants and animals have all sculpted the planet’s surface and atmosphere in the strangest of ways: fish poop creates islands; dead animals create mountains; and plants help create continents. From rocks to rivers, life has crafted everything that makes our planet so special. But this power of change brings with it profound dangers. Life doesn’t just create. It can also destroy. Astronaut host – Mike Massimino.
Part 8: Alien
All life on Earth started as single-cell bacteria and stayed like that for two billion years. So even if we do find alien life out there, what are the chances of that life being complex like us? On our strange rock, it’s all down to a freak event, which accidentally happened when one cell ate another to create a kind of power pack for life. This almost miraculous event transforms Earth into a complex interconnected web based on a competition for food. And at the top of the pyramid sit we humans. Astronaut host – Mae Jemison.
Part 9: Awakening
Of all life on Earth, how come we’re the only ones with the smarts to leave our planet? For three billion years, nothing had a brain. Even today, over 90 percent of life doesn’t need a brain to survive. So, what happened? How did our planet set in motion the chain of nearly impossible events that gave us our unique intelligence? The greatest mystery of all may be right between your ears. Astronaut host – Leland Melvin.
Part 10: Home
After 665 weightless days in space, NASA’s most experienced astronaut, Peggy Whitson, smashes through the atmosphere on her last journey home to planet Earth. With unprecedented filming on board the ISS during Peggy’s final mission and with the support of our other featured astronauts, we reveal how their time in space transforms their understanding of our planet’s wonders, insights that will change our perspective, too. There is no place like home. Or is there? Just how strange is our rock, and is it really unique in the universe? Astronaut host – Peggy Whitson.