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We’re Speeding On The Road To Extinction

By Lionel Anet

15 July, 2010

The catastrophe confronting us is the severest that life has ever faced and incredibly its one of our own making. The scientific and technological advances that civilisation experienced in the past two centuries changed the world from a vibrant diverse ecosystem to a fragile one. It’s hard to find any branch of the ecosystem that is in better condition to support human life today than it was at the beginning of the industrial revolution. This is in spite of the exponential increased in knowledge and abilities.

It has taken great ingenuity and an overwhelming amount of hard work that was at times very dangerous and injurious to workers and the community’s health to get us to the brink of the severest mass extinction. As well, we had to work extra long hours to produce stuff to throw away just to maintain a growing economy. Instead of eating our food, freshly grown close by, we have to eat food grown as far as the other side of the world because oil is cheap and the labour there is cheaper. This increased activity opens up opportunity for more profits, ignoring the fact that it has polluted and poisoned much of planet, and is likely to have runaway heat increase, which will destroy the ecosystem.
Thomas Robert Malthus, over two centuries ago correctly evaluated that there’s a limit to the carrying capacity of our planet. The extensive use of fossil fuels instead of solar power gave what seemed to be unlimited resources, which went unchallenged until 1968. This was when the club of Rome’s book “Limits to Growth” came out, which caused some alarm as it predicted the planet would run out of vital minerals and energy within a few decades with the known deposit of the time. However, new technologies, which used oil to replace labour, enable the widening of possible extraction of resources. This kept the economy growing for extra decades; it damaged the environment, depleted vital resources, and it allowed many nations to increase their population. The continual economic growth powered by fossil fuels enabled economists to maintain their belief in it’s perpetuality. It also gave economists an opportunity to ridicule the club of Rome as they did to Malthus. (For Malthus poverty and famine were natural outcomes of
population growth and a static food supply. This was not popular among social reformers who believed we could eradicate all ills of man with proper social structures.)
Capitalism was the ideal system to bypass the planet’s limits by using fossil fuels. Up until the industrial revolution, nearly all energy came from the limited solar radiation but when fossil fuels replaced solar there seemed to be no limits to the available energy and therefore no limits to growth. This new energy came from ancient fossilised solar energy, which had taken millions of years to accumulate. Therefore, releasing much of that energy in a couple of centuries is obviously going to overwhelm nature’s ability to process the extra carbon and pollutants. The carbon dioxide emitted from volcanic eruptions for over a billion years would have increased the level of that gas to such an extent that the planet would now be too hot for any life. It would be more like Venus. Plants extracted the CO2 from the atmosphere to produce carbohydrate, the food for all life. A portion of it eventually ended up buried underground as coal, limestone, and oil. The total carbon in the air plus fossilised carbon in the ground has increased from the time life started on earth and therefore as we release some of that fossil carbon into the atmosphere we will change the balance in the biosphere, which will change the climate accordingly.

Since the start of global capitalism, the disparity in wealth and power has steadily increased, to levels where a small fraction of people has unimaginable wealth, while the number of people on a near starvation level is mounting. Millions of people haven’t enough potable water and lack other life’s necessities, which are getting scarcer or their conditions are deteriorating. The lack of food and water will proportionally affect the majority of people who lack the money to buy food, but a consequence is that desperate people might become violent (as happen during the French and Russian revolutions). This situation will get much worse with an expected population of 9 billion, living with the effects of global warming and a reducing oil supply. Oil is the only energy and fertiliser that can support agribusiness. Well within two decades, food production from agribusiness will crash and many investments will be worthless turning some rich people into paupers.

Capitalism is in the process of killing humanity in the quest for perpetual growth and maximising profits. This is a reckless pursuit with complete irresponsibility and a disregard for fairness. The way people manage to act in that extremely inhuman way and still feel OK, is by giving control of the economic system to the market. We have rescinded many controls of society and people are now powerless to disregard the market’s dictates, which is in the process of destroying life. Although there have been many attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they all failed. The reason is that we all have to compete to maintain our position in local and world markets. That competition increases production of goods, which fossil fuels is the only energy that can supply at present, therefore an effective carbon tax will cripple the global market, so we keep on emitting carbon until life is impossible.

Global warming will be fatal for all people and maybe for all living things if we continue to maintain “business as usual” for much longer. However, that’s only one of many issues we need to confront. Peak oil will have tragic consequences if we refuse to cut oil consumption; it will affect nearly every aspect of worldwide economies; it will curtail most mining projects and completely change the way we get our food. It will gradually leave all advanced societies with obsolete infrastructures particularly in the transport sector - affecting air, road, and shipping. This will devastate world trade. The planning of cities and urban areas built in the second half of the 20th century was for cars (which killed more people in the first world than wars did). Cars are also the most energy and space hungry way to move people. Furthermore, the basis of our society, competition, breeds dishonesty, deceit, clandestineness, and distrust, all the qualities that a world of abundance has been able to manage somewhat, but definitely not in the coming era of scarcity.

When you are in Rome, do as the Roman do, so the saying goes, this is valid for all people living in any social setting. We find ourselves in a market control system where individuals, families, communities, corporations, and government must comply with the dictates of the market. There’s very little that any identity can do but work within that system. It’s very difficult even to get any discussion on the dependability of a competitive market system. A competitive social system is an oxymoron, which means the contradiction can never be resolved; this is why civilisation has perpetual conflicts. Wars to achieve peace are to exploit militarily weaker people.

Yet the overwhelming concern of government, the media, and many academics is how to keep the market economy growing. The hope is that technology will come up with a solution to keep more cars on the road, more aeroplanes in the air, more people shopping, more people in the world, and more minerals out of the ground. If we keep on this course the planet will run out of resources, world societies will collapse into chaos and the planet will heat up to Venus’ level of 400c. The Earth will be similar to Venus if we burn all the coal, according to James Hansen, Nasser atmospheric scientist.

Although the market is responsible for the destruction of the ecosystem and the depletion of resources, only a few powerful people are actively supporting that system. Unless the wealthy ones realise that its they who will be the first group to disappear either financially or from violence, while the poor may manage depending on how quickly capitalism is abandoned. Those extremely well off people are in the main divorced from the day-to-day way of life of most people and of nature. Although the plight of poor people and a degrading environment disturbs everyone to a varying degree, unfortunately, the market keeps some of us focused on self-interests. Billionaires or paupers, we all have to work within the market system that has caused the problem.

It’s important to confront the dire situation we’re in because if we don’t we won’t see both the extreme danger we’re facing and appreciate the opportunity that this crises opens up for us. On the other hand, by giving hope that somehow, individuals by their socially responsible life style will gradually improve societies and eventually, over many decades (maybe even a century), lead to world societies living within the environmental constraint. This will be fatal; nature can’t give us that sort of time.

It’s not possible to survive this century if we refuse to see the problems that will become unavoidable and unfixable within a decade or two at the most. Capitalism has changed the power ratio between humans and the rest of nature. Until the industrial revolution, civilisation could only destroy a small section of the planet but the market has forced a technology growth by using fossil fuels to power the economy to such an extent that it can destroy all living things without even trying.

The longer that system lasts the more deaths we will experience from it and if it remains, the planet could be lifeless within a few centuries. The reason that so few people understand the seriousness of the situation is the media obstructs information and thereby the changes needed to go from an unsustainable socioeconomic system to a sustainable one. The advertising industry largely finances the media; the media won’t publicise anything that will infringe on the business of its vital clients. The needs of the media have to satisfy the advertisers’ business and therefore their task is to convince the readers that the reader’s interest is the same as the interest of advertisers, which is more growth. The best business condition for advertisers is to have a surplus of goods and services with fewer customers that have money from savings or from borrowing. Although the advertising industry controls the information media, the market forces advertisers to promote consumption.

Activists have focused their effort for centuries on helping the underprivileged. Unfortunately, today, mainly in the third world, but also in the USA there are more underprivileged people than ever, There was nothing else one could do up until the late 20th century, since then two new important effects from the use of fossil fuels became evident. The first is the depletion of resources especially oil and fresh water, the second is global warming caused by the emission of more carbon than nature can process. This means we are at or near the end of growth, therefore the end of capitalism.

With so little time and with total devastation ahead what are our options now?
• Is the outcome of “business as usual,” an option that we can pass on to children?
• Are our children worth the psychological effort of changing the way we interact?
• Is it still physically and emotionally possible to change from the extinction course to a survival one?
• Can we have a future if we concentrate our thinking on the present economy?