In Margaret Atwood’s powerful essay on the reality of climate change — and its implications for the future of oil-dependent industrial civilization — she tells two vastly distinct stories of our future.
The first is a tale of dystopia — a future so bleak, it would make Hollywood moguls looking for the next science fiction blockbuster of action-packed (post)apocalypse salivate with anticipation. Here, Atwood tells a story of human failure: of short-sighted choices based on fatal addiction to business-as-usual, and an egoistic hubris rooted in centuries of globalisation.
In this scenario, we largely ignore the overwhelming evidence of climate change, and the result is that industrial civilization enters a period of protracted collapse, fuelled by accelerating war, famine, and natural disasters.
The second is a vision of utopia — a collectivist dream-world in which everybody works together, harnessing the best of human ingenuity across society, economics, politics and technology, to peacefully restructure the fundamentals of human existence. Here, Atwood tells a story of human success: of far-sighted decisions based on confronting the follies of business-as-usual, and by embracing our unity as a species.
In this scenario, we act on the overwhelming evidence of climate change, and the result is that industrial civilization enters a period of carefully calibrated transition to a techno-utopian post-capitalist, post-materialist infrastructure, avoiding the worst of today’s scientific warnings.
Of course, both these scenarios are extremes, but there is a purpose to such extremes. Atwood uses the power of story to help us awaken to the starkness — and gravity — of the choice we now face: a choice, effectively, between hell and heaven on earth.
And Atwood is spot on when she notes that this is not just about climate change.
The meteoric accumulation of scientific data over the last few decades has increasingly brought home the fact that the climate crisis is a symptom of a deeper, civilizational problem. It is not just that we are completely and utterly dependent on fossil fuels, oil, coal and gas, to do literally anything and everything in our societies — from transport and food, to art and culture.
It is the wider context of that structural dependency: the extent to which cheap fossil fuels enabled the exponential economic growth trajectory that took-off since the Industrial Revolution; the symbiotic relationship between economic growth and the evolution of the banking system, which has been able to flood the world with credit on the back of seemingly endless supplies of cheap oil; the relentless expansion of Anglo-European capitalism through empire and slavery; the transformation and militarization of global capitalism under US dominance, accompanied by ownership and control of much of the world’s land, food, water, mineral and energy resources by a tiny minority of the world’s population; and the subjugation of planetary resources to the endless growth-imperative of that minority, as it seeks, entirely rationally within this structure, to maximize its profits.
The corresponding ecocide that has resulted — with species extinctions now at record levels, and the degradation and destruction of critical eco-systems escalating at unprecedented scales — is not factored into the narrow calculations of quarterly returns by these powerful interlocking corporate and banking conglomerates.
Climate change is merely one symptom of a wider Crisis of Civilization.
Last month I reported exclusively on a new scientific model being developed with support from a UK government task-force at Anglia Ruskin University. The model showed that on a business-as-usual trajectory, industrial civilization as we know it would likely collapse within 25 years due to global food crises, induced by the impacts of climate change in the world’s major food basket regions.
The model showed, however, that this outcome is by no means inevitable — in fact, its creators pointed out that such a business-as-usual trajectory would be unrealistic, as already policy changes have been pursued in response to the 2008 food and oil shocks. Though inadequate, this means that as crises accelerate, they will simultaneously open up opportunities for change.
The question, of course, is whether by then it will be too late.
A widely-reported paper in Science Advances published in June concluded using extremely conservative assumptions that an “exceptionally rapid loss of biodiversity” has occurred “over the last few centuries.” The scale of this loss indicates “that a sixth mass extinction is already under way.” Although it is still possible to avoid a loss of critical ecosystem services essential for human survival, through “intensified conservation efforts,” the window of opportunity to do so is “rapidly closing.”
There is much corroborating evidence for these findings. Another study in May found that if global warming continues at current rates, one in six species on the planet will be at risk of extinction:
Extinction risks from climate change are expected not only to increase but to accelerate for every degree rise in global temperatures. The signal of climate change–induced extinctions will become increasingly apparent if we do not act now to limit future climate change.
The risk of civilizational collapse — and outright extinction — is perhaps the clearest signal that there is something deeply wrong with the global system in its current form. So wrong, that it is right now on a path to self-annihilation.
War, famine, and social break-down are happening today in the context of escalating, interconnected climate, food and energy crises. The conflicts in the Middle East that are now pre-occupying Western governments were sparked by a cocktail of climate-induced drought, entrenched inequalities, depletion of cheap oil, and political repression.
The spiralling terrorist violence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and beyond — purportedly in the name of religion — is being aggravated by concrete material realities: water scarcity, energy scarcity, and food scarcity.
Which of course should really beg the question: which war are we fighting, and in whose interests?
The world is locked into a clash of civilizations, each side pointing the finger of blame at the other: the Western world’s ‘war on terror’ to crush Muslim barbarians, and the Muslim world’s ‘jihad’ to repel Western empire. Ironically, neither side could exist without the other.
As economic hardships accelerate while the global system continues to unravel, this reactionary violence against the Other is becoming evermore normalized. Communities, searching for somewhere to pin their anxieties, root themselves in simplistic, artificial categories of identity — political identity, religious identity, ethnic identity, national identity.
These identities serve as anchors amidst a maelstrom of intensifying global uncertainty, as well as convenient vindicators of blame against those who stand Outside one’s chosen identity.
But while both sides are consumed with mutual hatred, they are missing the point: the real issue is not a clash of civilizations, but a Crisis of Civilization in its current form.
According to another groundbreaking paper in Science, published earlier this year to little media fanfare, while we are busy fighting each other to death, overconsuming planetary resources and annihilating the very ecosystems we need to sustain long-term human survival, we are in fact contributing to the permanent destabilization of the Earth System (ES).
The new study develops a framework to understand ‘Planetary Boundaries’ (PB) within which can be discerned a “safe operating space” permitting modern societies to evolve.
The study is authored by an interdisciplinary team of scientists from Sweden, Australia, Denmark, Canada, South Africa, the Netherlands, Germany, Kenya, India, the US and the UK. Noting that the 11,700 year long epoch known as the ‘Holocene’ is the only state of the Earth System that definitely supports “contemporary human societies,” the scientists conclude:
There is increasing evidence that human activities are affecting ES functioning to a degree that threatens the resilience of the ES — its ability to persist in a Holocene-like state in the face of increasing human pressures and shocks. The PB framework is based on critical processes that regulate ES functioning… [and] identifies levels of anthropogenic perturbations below which the risk of destabilization of the ES is likely to remain low — a ‘safe operating space’ for global societal development… Transgression of the PBs thus creates substantial risk of destabilizing the Holocene state of the ES in which modern societies have evolved.
While much attention has been paid to the new science of impending doom, there has been less focus on the new science of civilizational transition.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from these warning signs is what they tell us about the need not simply for ‘change’, but for fundamental systemic transformation.
The science of impending doom does not prove the inevitability of human extinction, but it does prove the inevitability of something else: the extinction of industrial civilization in its current form.
The endless growth model of contemporary global capitalism is not just unsustainable — it is on track to destabilise the Earth System in a way that could make the planet uninhabitable for society as we know it.
It is not humanity, then, that is doomed — it is industrial capitalism.
The choice before us, then, is whether or not we are willing to give-up fossil-fueled endless material growth.
As much as governments and corporations would like us to remain deluded in the conviction that this choice lies not in our hands, but theirs, the truth is that both are becoming increasingly obsolete as global crises accelerate.
The oil empire is crumbling. The US shale industry is collapsing under ballooning debt and diminishing profitability. Canadian oil and gas firms are “bleeding money” as they experience the biggest drop in profit in a decade. The UK’s oil industry is “close to collapse” according to Robin Allen, head of the Association of UK Independent Oil and Gas Exploration Companies.
The governments that remain beholden to the fossil fuel lobby will die along with these firms.
As they crumble, in their place new post-capitalist, post-materialist ideas, structures, and practices are fast emerging. One powerful compendium of information on the rise of the new paradigm is a new book by Dr. Samuel Alexander, an environment lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Research Fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, and a co-director of the Simplicity Institute.
“The main issue, however, is not whether we will have enough oil, but whether we can afford to produce and burn the oil we have,” Alexander writes in Prosperous Descent: Crisis as Opportunity in an Age of Limits (2015).
Just as expensive oil suffocates industrial economies that are dependent on cheap energy inputs to function, cheap oil merely propagates and further entrenches the existing order of global capitalism that is in the process of growing itself to death.
The death of the age of oil is, therefore, symptomatic of the end of the capitalism itself.
“We cannot merely tinker with the systems and cultures of global capitalism and hope that things will magically improve,” adds Alexander in Prosperous Descent (2015).
Those systems and cultures are not the symptoms but the causes of our overlapping social, economic, and ecological crises, so ultimately those systems and cultures must be replaced with fundamentally different forms of human interaction and organisation, driven and animated by different values, hopes, and myths.
Uncivilising ourselves from our destructive civilisation and building something new is the great, undefined, creative challenge we face incoming decades — which is a challenge both of opposition and renewal.
Alexander shows that conventional growth economics in the developed world has become “socially counter-productive, ecologically unsustainable, and uneconomic.” Not only that, but mounting evidence in the form of price volatility, stagnating energy supplies, and the failure to address the instabilities of the global financial system suggest that the world is facing an imminent end to growth, symptomatic of the breaching of planetary boundaries. In this context, there is a need for what some scholars call “degrowth” — defined as “an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human wellbeing and enhances ecological conditions.”
Degrowth doesn’t mean the end of prosperity, but the end of a particularly parasitical form of economics that is widening inequalities even as it ravages the environment. If we don’t choose this path voluntarily, as a species, Alexander warns, it is likely to be imposed on us in a much more unsavoury fashion by the unsustainability of business-as-usual.
But inasmuch as Alexander rejects a resigned, fatalistic capitulation to inevitable dystopia, he also warns against blind faith in salvation via techno-utopian ingenuity.
Instead, he coins the idea of “voluntary simplicity” — a way of life in which “people choose to restrain or reduce their material consumption, while at the same time seeking a higher quality of life.”
Dr. Alexander shows that voluntary simplicity is the only pathway that avoids civilizational collapse. It does so because it entails the fundamental systemic transformation of civilization — the transition to a way of being which does not eschew technology, but uses the best of human technology to re-wire civilization from the ground up.
At the core of this radical re-wiring is a transformation of the human relationship with nature: moving away from top-down modes of political and economic organization, to participatory models of grassroots self-governance, localized sustainable agriculture, and equity in access to economic production.
This transformation in turn will require and entail a new “aesthetics of existence.” Drawing on the ethical writings of Michael Foucault, Alexander notes that “the self” as we know it today is woven largely from the structures of power in which we find ourselves. As inhabitants of consumer societies, we have internalized mass consumerism, its egoistic values and its reductionist worldview, “often in subtle, even insidious, ways.”
Yet Foucault also showed that “the self” is not just shaped by society, but also acts on and changes itself through “self-fashioning.” What type of person, then, should one create?
Given that overconsumption is driving many of the world’s most pressing problems, it may be that ethical activity today requires that we critically reflect on our own subjectivities in order to refuse who we are — so far as we are uncritical consumers. This Great Refusal would open up space to create new, post-consumerist forms of subjectivity, which is surely part of the revolution in consciousness needed in order to produce a society based on a ‘simpler way.’
The post-capitalist, post-materialist societies of the future, thus, represent the emergence of not just a new form of civilization entirely — but a new form of human being, and a new way of looking at, and being in, the world.
This new “self” will be premised on envisioning the inherent unity of the human species, the interdependence of humankind with nature, and a form of self-actualization based on safeguarding, exploring and nurturing that relationship, rather than exploiting it.
Our task today is to accelerate the process of transition to postcapitalism by creating and implementing it here and now, in the bowels of a dying system. We may well fail in doing so — but the point is precisely to broaden the horizons of the present so that we become cognizant of possibilities that lead beyond it, to plant seeds that might blossom in years and decades to come as governments fall and economies rupture.
We need to work together to craft new visions, values and worldviews; to develop new ideals, ethics and structures; to innovate new politics, economics and cultures of resistance and renewal.
Most of all, we need to evolve new stories of what it means to be human. As Atwood shows, we need stories that speak to the human condition, which beckon to a utopian future beyond the constraints of the dystopian present, which can help us reflect on the challenges of today with a view to collectively dream-weave a more meaningful tomorrow.
Whatever choices we make, one thing is certain. Well before the end of this century, our fossil fuel-centric industries will be little more than outmoded relics of an old, defunct civilisation.