The scientific narrative about the climate and biosphere is mostly useless

Photo by the author
If we fail to change course, it will take millions of years for Earth to recover an equivalent spectrum of biodiversity. Future generations of people will live in a biologically impoverished world. — A Global Deal for Nature. Dinerstein et al. 2019.
Like war thinking and money thinking, the problem with carbon reductionism is that it reduces “everything matters” to “one thing matters.” — Charles Eisenstein. Climate — A New Story 2019

For much of my professional life I have been a research ecologist, specializing in carbon relations of plants in tropical forest. As such, the impacts of climate change and deforestation have been apparent to me for over 30 years. Like many scientists who are even passingly familiar with the state of the biosphere, I am desperately alarmed at the decimation of our planet’s biodiversity and the ever-expanding extractive consumerism that is the foundation of the global economy.

The recent report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), despite its terrible name, puts this in stark terms noting that society must radically change or face progressive collapse of the ecosystem services that underpin civilization. Although the biodiversity crisis is presently driven by habitat destruction (especially through the expansion of agriculture) and depletion of natural resources, climate change will soon become a major driver of ecosystem disruption worldwide. Over a half-million terrestrial species and up to a third of marine corals and mammals are at risk. If left unchecked, climate change and biodiversity loss will end the present version of civilization.

It is not a question of if, but rather when, this confluence of crises will disrupt the flows of energy and materials through societies.

For decades awareness of these facts has had little effect. We lament the state of the planet and worry about what will happen, but there has been no fundamental change in human affairs. The capitalist juggernaut seemingly grows more invincible with every passing year. The Trump administration has pulled out all the stops on the fossil fuel driven economy. Beginning in 1970, the EPA was a model of environmental protection for the rest of the developed world. Under Trump it has become a shill for the fossil fuel industry. The science shows we are careening toward a biophysical precipice. Once over the edge, it is likely the biosphere and climate will be beyond management.

Despite increasing evidence that it has not worked, we persist in the belief that we can manage our way out of impending doom. The use of geoengineering is now considered likely by many scientists and some are exploiting the development of such methods for personal gain. The most likely forms of geoengineering to stabilize the Earth’s temperature could result in massive damage to terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

Thirty years of international agreements about how to respond to climate change have failed to halt the massive increase in greenhouse gas emissions that has occurred over this period. We describe the impacts of climate change in terms of the metrics of increased global average temperature relative to that of preindustrial. We talk about the rate of increasing carbon dioxide emissions (presently about 2.5% per year) and we predict the effect of the Paris climate accord. Even if all countries deliver on their promises, it is likely we will see a global average rise of about 3.0˚C. We know there is no way we can stay below 2˚C without drastic immediate reductions in emissions. The loss of species is estimated to be 1000 times greater than the natural rate of extinction. These scientific measures and narratives about the climate and biosphere are no longer useful. As stated by ecologists Dan Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs, “We don’t need a thermometer, we need a firehose.”

This standard narrative leaves out large constituencies who define our problems very differently. Marginalized peoples and minorities experience injustices as our consumer economy pollutes their neighborhoods and decimates their traditional livelihoods. The patriarchal dominance of the narrative leaves out women smallholders in developing countries and has no meaning for the growing numbers of poor women worldwide. How can they care about climate change and the loss of species when day-to-day survival is their primary concern? Politically active groups concerned with social justice feel excluded by the single-focused scientific narrative of climate and biosphere disruption. Scientists who have coined such absurd terms as “negative emissions” have argued that we must not muddy the waters with these “intersectional” issues. All will be lost, they say, if we don’t fix climate change. Many social scientists strongly disagree and see such issues as the basis of toxic capitalism which has fostered the decline of Earth’s living systems and the disruption of the climate.

Everything we have done so far to address the disruption of our planet has failed to stem the tide of emissions and many of these efforts have made the problem worse. For example, building dams to generate emissions-free energy has resulted in large emissions of methane from the impoundments behind these dams. Such dams in China and India have merely added to the power supply while more coal-fired plants have been built. Plans for massive impoundments in Africa will result in even more emissions as displaced villagers move to cities and participate in the fossil fuel economy.

Calculations of reduced emissions must take into account the “additional” fossil fuel emissions from the implementation of such green solutions. This concept of additionality is often the dark side of the happy talk about clean energy. Biofuels especially come with substantial additional carbon costs as land is cleared for their production. Woody biomass is only viable as a source of energy to the extent that forest regeneration and thus photosynthesis can keep up with the carbon emissions produced from burning trees for energy. Europe is phasing out its ill-conceived wood-fired power production, as leadership has finally acknowledged this is a failed paradigm.

The very basis of modern civilization is deeply flawed. The report from the IPBES and the recent report in October from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have stated in the clearest possible language that large-scale systemic change is urgent. Increasing numbers of informed observers are now drawn to the conclusion that nothing short of comprehensive downscaling of the global economy and extractive consumerism will be able to avert a future of misery and death for our children and future generations. I believe such downscaling need not result in a lowered quality of life. Instead, by emphasizing the connections among people and our integration with nature, our quality of life can be enhanced.

The patriarchal dominance of nature fosters the illusion of separateness and defines the narrative as one of control and conquer. It is our values that are broken, not our ability to control. Climate and biosphere disruption are symptoms of our dysfunctional civilization. Like the addicted alcoholic, there is a hole in our collective sense of self that no amount of booze or consumer goods can fill. During this final era of our consumer civilization, it will become obvious to any thoughtful observer that unrestrained capitalism has been an abomination.

Can we accomplish such downscaling? Any such save-the-planet notion must be met with skepticism, demand for evidence, and an honest look at the societal drivers of our long emergency. Perhaps extractive capitalism is so deeply embedded in our culture as to make it virtually impossible to change. Maybe, but the evidence suggests that humanity has the ability to thrive by other means. To me and many others, the need to change the foundation of civilization is beyond dispute. Is downscaling the appropriate frame for the needed change?

The focus for downscaling must be the community. This is the collection of citizens, neighbors, governing bodies, and institutions where most people live their daily lives. The community is where the impacts of climate and ecosystem disruption are experienced and it will be the front line of adaptation to these impacts. Our present version of civilization has left many people disconnected from their communities. Consumerism and media have taken the place of IRL (geek for In Real Life) relationships. Re-establishing these connections is a prerequisite for changing how we interact with our fellows and how we interact with our planet. Political polarization is minimized when we have direct human contacts with those with whom we disagree. We find common ground in shared experience. Demonization and dehumanization of The Other becomes impossible when we are engaged in service with and for our neighbors.

It is communities and municipalities that are enacting the most progressive regulations for waste management and the development of clean energy. The recent banning plastic straws is a trivial example of the numerous movements throughout the US. It is within communities we can find the most persuasive voices for human connectedness. This is where we find regulations that restrain rampant development and corporate dominance of natural and human resources. The belief only business can provide solutions is belied by the damage that big corporations have inflicted on communities. People are not blind to this and throughout the developed world regulations are being enacted to protect lands, waters, and people.

More compelling than these harbingers of change is the inescapable legacy of our evolutionary biology. The now respected process of group selection has endowed us with obligate social dependence on each other. Individually, we have little power to protect ourselves and survive for very long. Collectively, we have become the most dangerous organism to ever walk the Earth. Failure to honor such dependence inevitably results in catastrophic decline. History provides many examples of the decline of societies where the few dominated and denied the needs of the many.

Not only are we individually dependent on each other for our survival, I suggest there is compelling evidence that service to each other is hardwired in our character as a species. Connections based on trust through service were necessary for survival in primitive societies. Without the reciprocity of service, families, communities, cities, states, and nations cannot survive for long. Capitalism without trust poorly mimics relationships built on reciprocal service. The exchange of goods and services for money is useful for transactions, but it lacks meaning. Being hardwired for service means that acting in the service of others is intrinsically rewarding. It feels good. The acquisition of money may buy your home and food (for now, at least) but it will not sustain your connections with your fellows.

The movement of Transition Communities around the world is seeking a different path for human civilization. These communities are developing a different economy, one that remains grounded in a form of capitalism, but which maintains the human connections necessary to ensure trust. The goals of such communities include emphasis on collective intelligence, including the use of advanced technology, to find better ways of living, while working with compassion and paying attention to the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of community life. These communities seek to turn their ideas about what constitutes a good life into tangible reality by building a new and healthy economy based on a sense of place. This version of capitalism is profoundly different than the current paradigm in which power and capital are consolidated in the hands of the few through the exploitation of labor and resources of the many. While some Transition Communities have struggled to remain true to their principles in the global economy, they provide an example of how to accomplish downscaling while building human capacity for productivity through our connections with each other and the natural world.

It is the existence of our instinctual drive to service that gives me hope that downscaling will not only be possible, it will also enhance our quality of life. Halting the depletion of our vanishing resources can be deeply satisfying if we are able to fill that hole in our collective sense of self with something more meaningful than distraction and excessive consumption. By emphasizing connections within the community, we will be able to address the root causes of climate and biosphere disruption. To be sure, aggressive reduction of emissions and global-scale management of ecosystems undergoing disruption are necessary. We must accomplish these necessary tasks while constraining the ongoing damage from our present civilization. I hope we can transition to a civilization in which such impacts are minimal and no longer treated as external to the economy. I believe strong communities can provide the basis for a different version of civilization. We can foster a civilization in which our search for meaning does not result in the destruction of the very systems that sustain life.