Humans can never win World War Zero–Part 1

Remaining Forest Cover

Economics is based on war against nature and theft from working people

Economics sanctifies war against nature to create wealth and distribute it inequitably between people and nations. Economics encourages the conversion of nature into artefacts. As it does not distinguish between renewable and non-renewable resources, it allows the unbridled use of non-renewable resources,  thereby diminishing the environment without economic penalty.

War against nature: Humans can never win World War Zero (WW0). Humans have been fighting this war with nature for the last 10,000 years; ever since they became farmers and converted forests into farmlands, and domesticated wild animals into subservient creatures. It is a war in which humans have expended energy equivalent to that available in 20,000 Hiroshima-sized atom bombs every year to cut 1/3rd the original 60 million km2 of forests that existed 8,000 years ago, which is more energy than was used in all wars that humans have fought against each other.

Humans have waged war against nature to extract energy and raw materials from her. This is at the expense of other species. In 1900, humans stole 13% of the energy[ii] that nature made from sunlight through photosynthesis, the energy that sustains all life on Earth. A 100 years later, this theft jumped to 23%. The consequence of this ever-expanding human energy footprint is the throttling of energy available for other species. This has reduced the populations of many species and driven some of them to extinction.


Theft from working people: Resources (energy and raw materials) stolen from nature are used to produce goods and services and sold in the market, the proceeds of which are income. That portion of the income that is not used for producing or purchasing goods and services for current consumption is surplus or wealth.

Prevailing norms allow wealth to be distributed inequitably in society. Developed nations, “wealthy persons,” and corporations get the lion’s share of the surplus. Double theft, the first by humans from other species, the second by developed nations, the wealthy and corporations from developing nations and working people.

Inequality

Growth and consequent tipping points

Humans create knowledge: Humans alone have the unique ability to create knowledge, in particular knowledge of energy conversion. Humans have used this trait throughout history to expand their understanding of how nature works (science) and create increasingly sophisticated tools and processes (technology) to extract ever greater amounts of resources (energy and raw materials) from nature. Humans migrated to far corners of the earth in search of fresh resources, and knowledge of science and technology helped them extract energy and raw materials from every part of planet Earth, something that other species cannot do.  Other species draw resources from nature with their fangs and claws and their drawl is only to the extent that they require them for their sustenance. Since humans extract resources primarily by using their brains, they have drawn ever-increasing amounts of resources for the last 2 lakh years since they evolved into modern man.

Growth of science & technology: Resource extraction was slow at first but grew exponentially since 1700 when the industrial revolution started, and fossil fuel technologies began to be used. The per capita energy consumption of industrial man is now more than 100 times greater than that of the primitive human.  Global energy consumption today is >50,000-fold greater than it was during the hunting-gathering era.

Technology Progress

Growth of energy, GDP, population: Till the industrial revolution began, the main energy sources were animate (human + animal) energy and biomass. After the industrial revolution, fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) replaced the earlier sources. The discovery of large fossil fuel deposits and technological development jumped energy consumption from a 0.1% per annum growth to 1.4% growth per annum after the Industrial Revolution. Consequently, the global economy, measured as GDP and human population also grew at a faster rate.

Growth of Energy

Limits to growth and tipping points: We have over-used earth’s non-renewable resources. Consequently, we face three grave tipping points—Peak oil, climate change, and rampant inequality. Each of them has the potential to independently regress or collapse human society.

Tipping point 1: Peak oil[iii]

Exhaustion of fossil fuels: Industrial society was possible because fossil fuels and non-renewable metallic minerals began to be used extensively. Fossil fuels contribute ~80% of the world’s 14 Gtoeiii of commercial energy used today. It took 300 million years for nature to bake dead vegetation and animals to make fossil fuels. We have used up nearly 40% of 1,200 Gtoe of earth’s original fossil fuel reserve in just 300 years since the industrial revolution began.

At the current rate of fossil fuel consumption, oil is expected to exhaust in ~40 years, gas in ~50 years and coal in <100 years. With the current energy growth rate hovering a little over 2% per annum, in 50 we will require 3 times our current energy consumption, and in 100 years we will need 10 times that amount.

Energy Demand

Alternate energy lacking: Alternative energy sources do not have the potential to replace fossil fuels. We have already used 40% of the earth’s hydroelectricity generation potential. Uranium ore reserves will last only another 150 years for the currently operating nuclear reactors. None of the renewable energy sources—PV, concentrated solar power, biomass, wind, geothermal, wave energy has the potential to replace fossil fuels,

Diminishing non-renewable minerals: Over 50 billion tonnes of non-renewable minerals are extracted every year. The primary metals used are iron, aluminium, copper, manganese, zinc, chromium, lead, titanium, and nickel. About 90 non-renewable minerals, including cadmium, cobalt, gold, lead, mercury, molybdenum, phosphate rock, silver, tellurium, titanium, tungsten, and zinc are going to become scarcer within the next 2-3 decades. When their extraction slows down and ultimately ceases, if their recycling is inadequate, the global economy will seriously falter as replacements made from renewable materials will not be readily available.

Diminishing Energy

Declining energy resources have grave implications for the future of human society as it has the potential
to cause economic crises, exacerbate inequity, and even cause civilizational regress or collapse. Energy shortages were responsible for many civilizational collapses, e.g., Mayan, and Polynesian civilizations. Such collapses were confined to single civilizations in the past. Given the globalized economy, we have today, a collapse will not remain local.

Peak oil and non-renewable resource depletion have not received the same attention as climate change. There is no inter-governmental discussion regarding this problem.

Tipping point 2: Climate change

Global warming is a consequence of fossil fuel overuse and the cutting of forests. Together these two processes have emitted about 2,200 Gtiii of CO2e[iv] to date, increasing the atmospheric CO2 concentration that was stable at 280–300 ppmiii for 800,000 years before the industrial revolution, to 414 ppm today. This has warmed the earth by an average of 1.1°C above pre-industrial times.

Global Warming

Emissions not reduced by the Paris Agreement: Recognizing that climate change is a serious issue, the world’s nations signed the second Intergovernmental Agreement on Climate Change in Paris in 2015, which aims to limit global warming to 1.5–2°C above pre-industrial times, above which catastrophic consequence may ensue. Under the agreement, nations made non-binding pledges to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and sequester additional atmospheric CO2. These pledges have been ineffective. GHG emissions rose by 1.5% per annum in the recent past, reaching a high of 55.3 GtCO2e in 2018. To restrict warming to 1.5°C, GHG emissions must decrease by 7.6% every year for the next 10 years, a difficult target.

Warming impacts: Even if the Paris Agreement pledges are fully implemented in the specified timescale, scientists forecast that the warming by 2100 may be ~3°C above pre-industrial periods. That may cause the following impacts: Extreme heat waves over land with temperatures soaring 4–10°C above what they are today; alter precipitation patterns that would turn many areas arid, and increase precipitation in others; increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events; raise sea levels by 1–2 m, by 2100, particularly on the east coasts of Asia, Africa and the Americas; create millions of climate refugees of those displaced from coastal areas and small island nations, a process that will continue for a considerable time after net GHG emissions are reduced to zero; shrink glaciers and reduce the Arctic sea’s ice extent; create environmental exiles as a result of an increase in the frequency of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) and extreme weather events; cause food and water shortages; increase hunger, deprivation, malnutrition, disease and poverty as a consequence of temperature and precipitation variations; and a decrease in eco-system services as a result of degraded environment, soil moisture changes, desertification, and ocean and water body acidification; raise the incidence of mortality and morbidity as a result of lack of work and consequent decrease in nutritional intake, spread of vector-borne diseases as a result of temperature rise, extreme weather events such as storms, floods, drought and increased lawlessness; loss of forests and biodiversity and decrease the eco-system services they provide on account of energy shortages, temperature and precipitation changes, forest fires, land use change; a sixth mass species extinction; loss of employment and work opportunities as a result of energy price hikes and consequent disruption of the global economy; disruption of the global social and political order, and consequent disruption of the global economy and increase of lawlessness; trigger social conflict.

Winners and losers: Developed nations, with 16% of the global population today have consumed 69% of all fossil fuels used since the industrial revolution began, whereas developing nations with 84% of the world’s population today have consumed only 31%. The average per capita GDP of high-income countries in 2018 was US$ 44,787, i.e., 10-fold greater than that of low- and middle-income countries (US$ 4,971), and 20 times that of South Asia (US$ 1,903).

To restrict warming to less than 1.5oC only another 100-400 GtCO2 can be emitted. At the current emission rate of 40 GtCO2, the remaining carbon space will be erased in the next few years. If developing nations burn more fossil fuels to ‘develop’, they will contribute to warming that will exceed 1.5–2°C. If they restrict their emissions, they will remain permanently backward in comparison to the developed countries. Even if the entire remaining carbon space of 400 GtCO2 is given to the developing countries, they cannot achieve the material development standards of developed countries.


South Asia’s high vulnerability: South Asia is one of two regions that will be most affected by climate change. It has a quarter of the world’s population but has emitted only 3.6% of the world’s historic emissions[v].

Sea rise in Bangladesh and Maldives: Bangladesh and Maldives will be hardest hit by sea rise. These countries contributed 0.1% and 0.01% of the world’s historic emissions, respectively. With a likely 3-4 m sea rise in the Sundarbans area, Bangladesh will lose 15-25% of its land mass by 2100. An estimated 50 million Bangladeshi climate refugees will leave the country by 2050. Being extremely poor, these climate refugees will be forced to migrate to North Bangladesh and into neighbouring countries.

By 2100, Maldives will become all but uninhabited as sea rise will drown almost the entire island state. The entire population of Maldives will become climate refugees (current population ~500,000).

Sea Rise

Water stress in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka: Despite their small contribution to global warming, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka will be water-stressed severely in the coming decades. Their historic CO2 emissions are 0.01%, 0.3% and 0.03%, respectively.

By 2100 about half the glacial ice that spreads across 75,000 km2 of the Himalayas today may be lost. Himalayan glaciers will melt as global warming progresses, causing initially an increase in water flow in snow-fed rivers, followed by a decline. Glacial meltwill impact all major snow-fed South Asian rivers—Brahmaputra, Ganga, Indus, and Amu Darya and their tributaries. The contribution of snow and glacier melt to total downstream discharge, presented in the table below,  illustrates the variation between the major South Asian rivers.

Basin characteristics and snow/glacier melt contribution to downstream discharge

ParameterGangaBrahmaputraIndusAmu Darya
River basinIndia, BangladeshChina, India, BangladeshChina, India, PakistanAfghanistan
Annual basin precipitation (mm)1,0351,071423 
Basin area (km2)990,316529,7971,005.7451,074
Snow and glacier melt contribution to downstream discharge (%)8.7216077

Snow and glacier melt contribute a significantly lower amount to the total discharge of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra in comparison to that of the Indus and the Amu Darya. In a warming world, the discharge of the Indus, and the Amu Darya are likely to decrease significantly, causing large parts of Pakistan and the northeastern parts of Afghanistan to become severely water stressed. Water stress will compromise the water and food security of about 60 million people living in these basins. The fate of these people as future climate refugees is still not well understood. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka will be highly water-stressed by 2040-50 and will be at high risk of having repeated and severe droughts.

Glacial lake outburst floods in Bhutan and Nepal: Bhutan and Nepal each have CO2 historic emissions that are <0.01% of the world’s historic emissions and will be impacted by glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF). As glaciers melt, the volume of water in a glacial lake located at the mouth of many glaciers will increase and exert greater pressure on the moraine dam (consisting of rock and debris) that holds it. When the water pressure on a moraine dam exceeds its material failure limit it gives way and empties the glacial lake of millions of tonnes of water, causing a GLOF.

GLOF impacts are felt for up to 100-150 km downstream in the form of villages, fields, and everything else that is in its path being washed out. GLOFs have occurred in Bhutan, Nepal, and other parts of the Himalayas.

Glof

Extreme weather events in India:With a population that is 17.8% of the world’s population, India’s contribution to global historic emissions is 6.8%. India will be impacted by many types of climate change-related events—sea rise, GLOFs, extreme weather events (abnormally high temperatures or precipitation), floods, drought, cyclones, significant crop yield losses, heat stress, etc. Many extreme weather events have occurred in India in the last 15 years, indicating that more of them are likely to happen in future.

Extreme weather events in India in the 21st Century

YearEventLocationEstimated deaths
2005Very heavy rainfallMumbai1,100
2013CloudburstKedarnath>5,000
2015Very heavy rainfallChennai500
2018HeatwaveAll India2,405
2018Very heavy rainfallKerala500
2019Extremely high temperaturesMaharashtra, Madhya Pradesh50
2019Heavy rainfall & floodsMaharashtra, Karnataka, Goa, Kerala~300
2020Heavy rainfall & floodsHyderabad, Bengaluru, Mumbai100

The direct effects of heat stress are fatigue, rash, cramps, exhaustion, and heat stroke; and the indirect effects are reduced work performance, increased accidents, reproductive problems, heart, and lung strain, increase in disease-carrying vectors at a higher temperature. A study on heat stress and mortality done in Surat concludes that There is an increase of 11% in mortality when temperature crossed 40oC. There is a direct relationship between mortality and high heat index.”

Another study established a correlation between high temperatures and chronic kidney disease (CKD) in rural areas by reviewing studies done in several continents—Asia, North and South America and Africa. The study concludes, “Recent studies have also shown that recurrent heat exposure with physical exertion and inadequate hydration can lead to CKD that is distinct from that caused by diabetes, hypertension, or GN. Epidemics of CKD consistent with heat stress nephropathy are now occurring across the world.”

Tipping point 3: Inequality

Inequality is a consequence of the uneven distribution of energy and natural resource consumption. Its many dimensions—entitlements, income, asset holding, decision-making, identity, and exposure to natural and manmade risks—have been manifest in human society since the time of slavery.

Inequality is rampant in the world today. In 2019, the share of the top 10% in national income was 52%, whereas that of the bottom 50% was 9%, i.e., less than one-fifth the share of the top 10%.  The top 1% of the population had an income share of 19%. Twenty-six persons now own the same as the poorest half of humanity. In 2018, it took 44 billionaires to own the wealth that the poorest 50% did.

Inequality1

Until the industrial revolution began, India and China, roughly in equal measure, contributed to half the world’s GDP, after which their contribution declined significantly, to be replaced by Western Europe and the United States, i.e., the wealth gap between developed and developing nations widened considerably since 1700 but has just begun narrowing since 1990 because of India and Chinas’ recent growth. Whether this trend will continue is moot.

Income Inequality India

India’s inequality has grown considerably since it started liberalizing its economy in the last decade of the 20th Century. India ranks as one of the three most inequitable countries in the world. Between 1951 and 2019, the income of the top 10% (top green line) of the population went up from 37% to 56% of the total income, i.e., it rose by 1.5 times. Whereas in the same period, the income of the bottom 50% (middle blue line) fell from 21% to 15% of the national income, i.e., a drop of>25%. The rise in income of the top 1% (bottom red line) of the population is even more dramatic. It rose from 12% to 21% during this period, a near doubling of income.

About a billion people, i.e., ~15% of the human population live below the poverty line, without enough to eat or a proper shelter. And it is going to take 100 years to pull them from below the poverty line, provided economic growth is not interrupted by peak oil, climate change or pandemics. Hunger and disease are direct consequences of poverty. Conflict is a consequence of inequality. In the 20th Century, 140 million people died in interstate, colonial and civil wars.

Other inequalities exist – between caste, gender, colour, nationalities, etc.

Tilting point: Degradation of life support systems (air, water, soil & biodiversity)

Air: Air quality has deteriorated in many parts of the world. Per the World Health Organization, air pollution causes 8 million excess mortalities annually, 52% of which are due to outdoor air pollution and 48% due to indoor air pollution. Air pollution-related excess deaths in India are estimated to be 1.6 million per annum.

Air pollution causes extensive injury to other sensitive receptors, e.g., crops, water bodies, forests, and monuments. Adequate estimates of the injury caused by these receptors are lacking. Studies though indicate that crop yield losses around major Indian cities may range from 15-40%. Air pollution-related crop yield loss for 6 crops–wheat, paddy, sugarcane, maize, cotton, and soya in India is estimated at Rs 1 lakh crores for the year 2019.

Air Pollution

Water: Of the water on Planet Earth, fresh water constitutes 0.75% in the ground and 0.0065% on the surface in rivers and lakes. All this water is not useable as some of the groundwater is unreachable and some of the surface water is polluted.

water

We have already tapped 65% of the usable fresh water, surface, and ground, available on Earth. Many parts of the world are now water-stressed. In a few decades, global water demand will exceed supply. Climate change will decrease the amount of usable water and acidification processes ill alter the pattern of water availability. Together, both will compromise the water security of many regions of the world.

This is likely to have two consequences within the next 2-3 decades. First, mass migration from areas that become severely water-stressed, e.g., Afghanistan and Pakistan. Second, existing water conflicts may be militarized and turn into international water wars, well before energy wars start up.

Water quality in many parts of the world is poor. Waterborne diseases, e.g., diarrhoeal diseases, cholera shigella, typhoid, hepatitis A and E, and poliomyelitis, are transmitted by ingestion of contaminated water. Diarrhoeal diseases alone account for more than 1.5 million deaths attributable to unsafe water supply, inadequate sanitation, and lack of hygiene.

Water Scarcity

Land: Large tracts of the world’s drylands are degraded, particularly in Eastern Europe, West, South and East Asia, and Central and Southern Africa. About one-third of the earth’s land area is affected by desertification due to poor soil conservation practices in agriculture.

dry land

Biodiversity: Human activity decreased biodiversity below optimal levels on >58% of the land mass. Southeast Asia is the most affected region. Agriculture, logging, residential and commercial development, the introduction of alien species and pollution are the major reasons for posing the risk of biodiversity loss.

biodiversity

Social development is due to the generation of surplus

Throughout history, humans created surplus (see pg 1 for definition), i.e., excess production of energy, goods and services not required for current consumption. Without a surplus of food and other human necessities ‘human development’ would not have happened. Surplus allows humans to divert some time away from producing goods and services for current consumption to create new knowledge, to innovate new technologies,  to produce new types of goods and services, e.g., cell phones, to create new forms of organizations that will facilitate development, e.g., cooperatives, and to pursue cultural activities. Other species do not create a surplus, and hence do not ‘develop.’

Surplus energy: The creation of surplus occurs in two stages. In the first stage, surplus energy is obtained from nature. It is the energy obtained by a harvested energy source that is more than the energy invested to obtain it. For example, an energy investment of 1 Joule (Jiii) made by humans to obtain coal fetches an energy yield of 20 J, of which 19 J is surplus energy. The energy investment of 1 J made by humans is only to prospect, mine, refine and transport the coal. The energy invested to make the 20 J of coal was made by nature. Another example is that of agricultural produce. Agricultural produce from natural farming contains more energy than the energy investment made to produce it. The surplus energy it contains is contributed by sunlight.

The ratio of energy yield to energy investment is known as Energy return on energy invested (EROEI). In the above example, the EROEI of coal is 20/1 = 20. Every energy source has an EROEI, and this may change with time and place. For example, coal had an EROEI of 80 about 100 years back. Its EROEI has dropped to 20-30 today as the coal seams easier to mine are exhausted.

Wealth: Energy and raw materials are used to make goods and services and sold for an income. That portion of the income that is not used for producing or purchasing goods and services for current consumption is surplus or wealth. Wealth may be in the form of material goods, energy, or a symbol that represents them, i.e., money. The surplus in the form of wealth allows humans to invest in “development.”

Acquisition of surplus energy and wealth

The acquisition of wealth may happen in three ways. The first is by making an implicit claim on the right to own wealth. The second is by forcibly acquiring the wealth of someone else. The third is creating an economic system that allows for the unequal exchange of embodied energy in products and services, which results in the transfer of wealth.

Ownership rights: Aninvestment of a small amount of energy required to harvest a large body of energy allows the investor to claim ownership over the entire body of energy, the return being in the same ratio as the EROEI of the energy source. In slave, feudal and capitalist societies, private ownership was vested largely with individuals or enterprises. In post-capitalist societies, e.g., the Soviet Union, it vested with the state.

Where do ownership rights come from? If it is an investment, the only investment that humans make in an energy source is by way of harvesting the energy and not by way of making it. “Who invested energy to make coal and how much investment was made?” The answer to the first part of the question is “Nature made coal by baking dead vegetation and animals for 300 million years.” For the second part of the question, there is no precise answer. But it would be appropriate to say that it probably took thousands of Joules to make 1 J of deliverable energy in coal. So, does nature have a greater claim over coal than humans have?

Conquest and colonization: Usurping of wealth accumulated by a nation or its ruler by a conqueror or colonizer is another way of acquiring wealth.

New technologies sometimes aid conquest, e.g., in the 11-12th Centuries, the invention of the harness and the stirrup allowed the Mongol cavalry to have both hands free to use a bow while riding. This gave them a tactical advantage over armies of more advanced kingdoms in Iraq, Iran, and India. Mongols appropriated the wealth created by these kingdoms.

In the 18th and 19th Centuries, European nations had colonies in Asia, Africa, and North America, from where they siphoned off vast amounts of wealth. Between 1765 and 1938, Britain drained an estimated US$ 45 trillion from India alone. Britain enacted laws that allowed it to impose high taxes and export food grain, resulting in famine in India that killed 15-30 million Indians. In the Great Bengal famine, food grains were diverted to the British army during World War 2 while thousands of Bengalis died. A consequence of British rule in India was the decrease of India’s share of global GDP from 23% to 4% while it was a colony. During this period Britain’s share of global GDP rose dramatically.

colonies

Unequal exchange: Where sunlight is a direct energy input into a production process, the energy and the economic equations are out of sync. The best example of this is crop production which requires plenty of sunlight. The energy equation for crop production includes sunlight as an energy input, along with other energy inputs such as biomass, animate energy (human + animal energy) and embodied[vi] energy in agrochemical, agro-machinery, water, and seeds. But in the economic equation for crop production, sunlight is not valued as an input it comes free of cost.

In an industrial process, all input energy is costed as input energy is either fossil fuel or a derivative of it, i.e., electricity. When industrial and agricultural produce exchange with each other at a given value, agricultural produce contains more embodied energy in it than industrial production.

Energy Economy

The unequal exchange between industry and agriculture puts the latter at a permanent disadvantage in the exchange of goods and services with industry. The unequal exchange also happens between developing countries that are more dependent on direct sunlight in their energy basket and developed countries that use less direct sunlight. The unequal exchange of energy can also explain other inequalities such as gender inequality.

By not valuing sunlight, economics influences energy choice away from sunlight towards costed energies (fossil fuels, nuclear energy, etc) as they yield surplus energy, which sunlight does not. Economics discourages the very energy source, i.e., sunlight, that can best move society towards sustainability.

Accumulation of surplus energy, wealth

An individual, an organization, an economic sector, e.g., industry, or geographical/political region, that acquires energy through ownership rights, conquest or colonization, or unequal exchange, will accumulate wealth. The acquired energy may be in the form of surplus energy or embodied energy. Wealth acts as a symbol of economic power and can be used to acquire social and political capital.

Accumulation of wealth by individuals, corporations, nations, and the state has led to growth, which has resulted in the three tipping points we face today—peak oil, climate change and rampant inequality.

Ideologies that provide the impetus for growth

Two ideologies—anthropocentrism and ownership of wealth provide the impetus for growth by legitimizing resource theft from nature and its unequal distribution among humans.

Anthropocentrism: Anthropocentrism prioritizes human consumption of nature in the belief that humans are the most important species and that the rest of nature is for their use. Anthropocentrism legitimizes the unbridled theft of energy and materials from nature at the expense of other species. Anthropocentrism is epitomized in v 1:26, Book of Genesis, “And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” While other religions may not be so overt in their pronouncement of human superiority, their followers have been just as anthropocentric in practice.

Ownership rights over wealth: Ownership rights over wealth evolved since the time of slavery. These rights have persisted through all modes of production, i.e., slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and post-capitalist societies. In the first three modes of production, individuals and the state had ownership rights. In capitalism, organizations, besides individuals and the state, could also own wealth. In post-capitalist societies, ownership rights were largely vested with the state. Some post-capitalist countries allowed individual and private enterprises to own wealth.

Slavery

Ownership of wealth creates an impetus to maximize the accumulation of surplus energy and wealth. For example, by investing 1 J in coal production, a surplus energy of 19 J is obtained. It now makes sense to invest 2 J out of the surplus to get a return of 38 J of surplus energy. This process becomes a virtuous cycle of Energy investment to harvest energy à Surplus energy à More investment to harvest more energy à More surplus energy à ……, and so on. 

The expansion of surplus energy leads to the extraction of greater quantities of raw materials from nature to convert them into goods and services. Such a virtuous cycle increases the exploitation of nature, and the accumulation of wealth in the hands of individuals, enterprises, or the state. Ownership of wealth has contributed to the overdraw of resources from nature.

Only two forks in the road

For millennia we have walked down the road named, “Social development.” We have now reached a fork in that road. One fork continues along the same bumpy road that we had trodden till now, the bumps being due to wars, conflicts, hunger, deprivation, pandemics, dehumanization, and inequality, in the last 10,000 years since we started our journey on this road.

World Wars 1 and 2 were fought by the Allied and Axis powers to gain a greater share of nature’s resources. The Allies won these wars as they had more energy resources than the Axis powers. Humans can never win WW0, a war humans are waging against nature, as we lack the wherewithal to tame nature. The war is now in its terminal phase. In our arrogance and foolishness, we continue to believe that we can win this war. We have injured the environment by causing life-threatening conditions like the ozone hole and climate change. We solved the ozone hole problem with technology. We cannot do that with climate change as inequity is an intimate part of this problem. Moreover, we do not have a good technological solution for climate change. And if we do not muster the collective resolve to change course, and remain on the first fork, recently renamed “Sustainable Development Road,” (the phrase sustainable development is an oxymoron), we are headed towards collapse.

Taking the other fork on the road that will allow us to transit to a society that is at peace with itself and with nature, will require humanity to make a conscious choice. To stop our war with nature, we must also stop warring with each other over ownership rights in nature, i.e., end resource conflicts, stop the theft that the ruling classes do from working people and end all other forms of inequality. The ideologies of anthropocentrism and wealth ownership, and their support institutions, have existed for ~5 millennia. They will not loosen their grip on society without a tough fight. There is an urgency to make society take the second fork on the road to avoid an impending catastrophe for nature and humans.

The is no third fork in the road. So, if we choose to take the second fork, we must begin to eschew anthropocentrism and private ownership of wealth. Our vision statement must then be:

  • Replace our current global outlook of “Gain maximization for the few” with “Risk minimization for all (species other than humans do risk minimization).”
  • Replace our belief that “we are apart from nature” with “we are part of nature.”

Our mission statement must be:

  • Sustainability: Developed nations must pledge to become net carbon negative in consumption emissions by 2030-35 to create space for developing nations to decarbonise by 2040-50. Decarbonisation must focus primarily on: a) Mitigation focussed on the reduction of consumption levels in the Global North, and supply-side management, leaving >90% of the remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground;  b)  Sequestration focussed on Nature Based Solutions that centre climate and social justice. In addition, decarbonization strategies must eschew failed, untested, hypothetical market-based solutions and techno-fixes. Through these means, gross global consumption should be reduced to sustainable levels, the measure for which should be a quantifiable justice-centric sustainability index.
  • Equity: The maximum/minimum ratio for income/energy consumption for all people in the world should be ≤5.
  • Environmental restitution: Degraded land, water, air, and to the extent possible, biodiversity should be restituted to their pre-industrial period quality.
  • Decentralization, democratic, transparent climate governance: As people’s involvement is essential for tackling the climate crisis, climate governance should be decentralized and democratized, governance information should be in the public domain, and people’s assemblies set up worldwide to allow people’s voices to be heard and reflected in climate decisions.

The big challenge is to convince the world that unless we all agree on the broad parameters of the mission statement, the survival of human society is at risk.

There are numerous unanswered questions—How much of nature can we use and still call ourselves sustainable? Where will our future energy and raw materials come from? What would a decentralized society look like? What does restitution of the environment mean? To what extent can restitution be done? How should responsibility for loss and damage be accounted for? These are just a few questions. There are many more tough ones for which we do not have all the answers. There will be differences in our answers to these questions. These questions need discussion among people and countries. And we need to come up with practical programmes that will take us towards a sustainable and equitable society. These discussions and programmes must involve all people of the world democratically. The path ahead on the second fork in the road is hazy as no one has all the answers. But failure to the second fork or to democratically discuss how to clear the haze and move down that fork to become a sustainable and equitable society would be at the peril of grievously injuring ourselves and nature. Each one of us must ask ourselves whether we want to do that.

Sagar Dhara – Male; Upper class & caste; College-educated; City-slick; Member of the most ferocious predator that ever existed on earth—humans. [email protected]


Notes

[ii] The technical term used for this is HANPP, i.e., human-appropriated net primary production

[iii] Peak oil is a term used for the peaking of oil production due to the exhaustion of oil resources, after which oil production will decline. Peak oil is used in a generic sense to mean the depletion and exhaustion of non-renewable resources.

[iv] CO2e = carbon dioxide equivalent. This term is used for the global warming potential of GHGs other than CO2. CO2constitutes the major fraction (~75%). Other gases include methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), ozone (O3), chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and Hydrofluorocarbons (HCFCs, HFCs).

[v] Historic emissions are emissions of a region/country for the last 300 years

[vi] Embodied energy is the amount of energy from all sources that go into the making of a good or service

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