Facing Down the Apocalypse: A Plea for Sanity and Change

By Glenn Ashton · 5 May 2014

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Picture: Joost J. Bakker/Wikimedia Commons
Picture: Joost J. Bakker/Wikimedia Commons

There really is no easy way to put this, so I will be blunt: If we fail to clean up our act, post haste, the world as we know it is doomed.

We need to place our political, social and economic institutions on the equivalent of a war footing to fight for the survival of the natural systems that support us. Should we fail, the lives of our children will not only be radically different, they will almost certainly involve a constant struggle for survival.

Sure, life on earth will carry on but it will be fundamentally different to the life we presently take for granted. There is no guarantee that humans will even survive. The fine threads holding the web of our ecosystems together are rapidly fraying.

This is not just about climate change; this is only one aspect of the problem. Neither is it about our accelerating use of dwindling fossil fuels and natural resources. It is not about our destructive agricultural system, our expanding population, the threat of nuclear conflagration, our overfishing of oceans, logging of rainforests, decimation of biodiversity, poisoning of water, air and land.

Rather this short plea is about all of these and more. The cumulative damage of these impacts has ushered in the dawn of the Anthropocene – an age where human impacts transform the fundamental balance of life on earth. This is propelled by our excessive consumption, chasing the myth of endless growth, contradictorily reliant on a finite planet with finite resources.

Barely 50 years ago humans were considered incapable of significantly damaging our ecosphere; after all, how could we possibly alter our planetary dynamics? This belief was fundamentally changed when Donella Meadows and her Massachusetts Institute of Technology collaborators published “The Limits To Growth” (LTG) in association with the Club of Rome.

The conclusions were dismissed and disputed, primarily by free market, libertarian and industry interests. The predictions made by Meadows have been reinforced since publication. Matthew R. Simmons, an investment banker and advisor to George Bush recently said, “…there was nothing that I could find in the book which has so far been even vaguely invalidated. To the contrary, the chilling warnings…are right on track.”

Subsequent reassessments of the LTG emphasise our blind devotion to an economic model that continues to erode our natural capital. Bio-geochemical processes like the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles have been fundamentally disrupted, polluting rivers, oceans and land, wasting these precious resources while simultaneously exceeding safe boundaries of use.

Our atmosphere is not only threatened only by ozone depletion and CO2 induced climate change – aerosol loading and pollution are equally serious threats. Less than three percent of all water on earth is fresh; less than one percent of that is in rivers dams and lakes, yet we contaminate and waste this precious resource. Each year sees thousands of novel chemicals added to the toxic soup of artificial compounds reacting in with life on earth in complex and unpredictable ways.

Our dominant political-economic system has achieved apparently insurmountable momentum, on firm course for disaster. So how do we motivate for the necessary changes? We remain innately complacent while allowing ourselves to be intentionally misinformed.

Let’s consider the relatively straightforward matter of climate change. The most recent proclamations by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - itself a conservative body - leave no room for doubt. It has established that our present practices of consuming accelerating amounts of fossil fuels is irreparably damaging our climate regulatory systems. Things are actually more serious than the IPCC states.

Yet a massive campaign, both overt and covert, has been mounted by interests allied to the fossil fuel industry to counter these claims. Misinformation is repetitively disseminated to create sufficient doubt to undermine concerted political action to address the problem. The world’s richest brothers, the Koch’s, deeply invested in fossil fuels, lead the charge along with the fossil fuel lobby and front organisations.

The longer we delay, the more costly the solutions. We are capable of shifting to renewable energy at a cost of less than one tenth of a percent of current global consumption if we act immediately. Another decade’s delay will increase costs significantly. The longer we delay, the greater the costs and impacts. The same applies to any of the other multiple threats we face.

This is why we require the equivalent of a transition to a war footing to deal with these rapidly compounding risks. Burning fossil fuels doesn’t only raise CO2 levels. Coal emits significant quantities of mercury, with significant amounts entering the food chain. Many fish have become unsafe to consume, particularly by children or expectant mothers.

Coal also releases cadmium, lead, radioactive particles and soot. What is bad about soot you ask? Well, so much soot has accumulated on the Greenland ice cap that by late summer the ice has turned grey. This reduces the albedo, the reflectivity of the normally white ice, making it melt far faster. Soot and particulates are also directly responsible for an estimated 6.7% of all deaths globally. Therefore reducing our reliance on coal and fossil fuel use goes far beyond climate change concerns.

The current price of energy production through wind and solar has reached or is rapidly approaching parity with conventional sources. Using these energy sources reduces the externalised costs of pollution and associated health impacts. Increased energy efficiency provides additional benefits.

Rather than costing us money and reducing opportunity, a transition to a new economic model opens up significant opportunities. There is ample space to improve how we produce energy and food, how we build our cities and transport goods.

Such a transition goes far beyond sustainability; it stands to create a more equitable way of doing business. The limits of growth co-exist with an increasingly unequal and polarised economic system: north vs south, developed vs developing, say it how you will. Addressing the threats of the Anthropocene holds many potential benefits to address with global inequality.

It would be wrong to entrench our prevailing inequality during this transition; if we do the struggle will remain between those who have and those without. The results stand to be catastrophic for everyone if we have to fight for ever-diminishing returns from waning resources.

We can either choose to change or have change thrust upon us. The sooner we start, the better for everyone and everything we share this planet with. A better world is not only possible, it is an imperative we must meet.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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