It’s The Environment, Stupid — Why Everything is Terrible and Going to Get Worse

Jack Nicholls
Jul 4, 2018 · 18 min read
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Things are not going well.

In recent weeks, reading international news has been an exercise in pain. Turkey’s autocratic President is ‘re-elected’ with dictatorial powers. Italy’s new government turns away a Doctors Without Borders ship from its ports, and announces a crackdown on Roma people. Children are put in cages on the US-Mexican border. Algeria deports thousands of migrants into the Sahara. Yemen is starving under Saudi-imposed famine, and of course insurgencies continue in Northern Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Syria.

Faced with a daily bombardment of stories like these, half my friends have consciously tuned-out of the news, the other half are hypnotised by it. Either way, the politics are blinding us to the far more serious story unfolding simultaneously:

Red-hot planet: All-time heat records have been set all over the world during the past week

Chris Packham warns of ‘ecological apocalypse’ in Britain

Coral reefs ‘will be overwhelmed by rising oceans’

Antarctica has lost three trillion tonnes of ice in 25 years — and the rate of loss has tripled

The most ancient African baobabs are dying and no one knows why

Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions Hit a New Record

It’s often the small things that seem to hurt the most. For me, its the baobab story. I love baobab trees, they look like cartoons come to life. But in the last decade, nine trees that had survived between twelve to twenty-five centuries have succumbed to their changed conditions, one after the after. They were institutions that seemed like they would be with us forever, until suddenly they weren’t.

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Byebye baobab?

If I’m cherry-picking, it’s because after decades of inaction we are facing a harvest of bad cherries indeed. It’s not a coincidence that these two strands of doom-mongering are happening at the same time. The quiet collapse of our biosphere is the biggest story of the century, but it is increasingly obscured by social upheavals. We are in a ‘illiberal moment’, when increasing numbers of people have stopped believing in progress, and are instead turning to authoritarian leaders who promise to champion their tribe, the ‘Real People’, at the expense of all others.

And this is exactly what you would expect in a world where the insects are vanishing, the glaciers are melting, the deserts are spreading and the desperate are on the move. Climate change is the elephant in the room, or given that elephant populations are dropping 8% a year, the soon-to-be extinct elephant in the increasingly-fortified room.

Most people, when asked to explain their frustration with the world, justifiably point to economic stagnation and cultural alienation. But if capitalism has ceased to improve people’s lives, it is largely because capitalism has reached the limits of what our planet can support. Meanwhile, authoritarianism is on the rise even in countries like China, where the immigration is low and the economy booming, but rivers are toxic and pollution blocks out the sun.

Authoritarian politics rise from despair. When the future seems hopeless, people turn on each other in the present, and as long as our environment is dying, it is rational to be hopeless. We are entering a negative feedback loop. The worse climate-change gets, the worse our politics will become and the less likely we can co-operate to fix the planet.

This illiberal moment isn’t a blip, and things are not going to go back to ‘normal’. More importantly, a progressive fightback against authoritarianism will be futile if we cannot deal with the despair that drives it. Our extractive society is starting to crash, and if we don’t get our shit together on the environment, then over the next twenty years we are going see a lot worse than caged children.

Stability Societies and Progress Societies

At a moment when people are questioning some of the fundamentals of our economic and political systems, it helps to ask how we got here. Why do we let our ‘Rulers’ give out parking fines or make us go to school? Why did we ever peacefully accept election outcomes, and why are more people now viewing their political opponents as illegitimate? Where does the legitimacy of a government come from?

For most of history this question didn’t even make sense. People co-operated with their government because if they didn’t, their children would be impaled on spikes. But you can’t spike all the babies, and so in the 17th century, European political philosophers coined the theory of the ‘Social Contract’. They argued that rulers get their legitimacy through the passive consent of their people, who accept the status quo in exchange for the benefits it brings. So what did people gain from government?

Traditionally, protection from being murdered and little else. Rulers used their monopoly on force to promise that tomorrow would not be worse than today. These were ‘Stability Societies’, and included almost all the kingdoms and empires that have ever been. In a Stability Society, you assume that your children will be able to live a life much like yours, and that’s not bad. Even so, this social contract usually had to be enforced with force, but this balance of threat and protection kept most people in line, most of the time.

Eventually, we came up with the radical idea that tomorrow could be better than today. Through co-operation we could be healthier, get richer, become happier. And thus were born the ‘Progress Societies’. In Progress Societies, the state becomes legitimate because it promises improvement. People don’t have to be coerced, because they believe that they will be better off working within the system.

Communist states began as Progress Societies before quickly reverting to a Stability template. China today is an illiberal Progress Society. And of course, our modern democracies have been Progress Societies; in fact they rely on it. Democracy relies on the electoral losers being willing to accept their failure and give up the rewards of power to their enemies. Political tribes are willing to do that when:

A: They see their opponents as legitimate members of the nation.

B: They see a long-term pay-off in accepting defeat and trying again at the next election.

Today, both of those assumptions are looking shaky, and for the same reason: the future does not seem bright. When you believe in Progress, it makes sense to accept a lost election because life will still tend to improve and all sides can benefit from taking turns at the top — there will still be plenty of resources waiting to be claimed at the next election. When you expect things to get worse, it might make more sense to take as much as you can for your tribe today, because tomorrow might not have the same opportunities.

Across the West in 2018, the Progress Society has broken down. Ten years after the Global Financial Crisis, real incomes have stagnated, infrastructure has not kept pace with population, and inequality has grown.

So it might seem that we have backslid to Stability Societies, but it’s worse than that. The combination of a global environmental catastrophe and our unprecedented ability to predict the future has brought us to an even more dangerous place. We are living in a Despair Society.

Rational Despair

What is the legitimacy of a system that asks for our consent and promises declining living standards in return? That is the question we are facing now.

Economies have always gone through cycles of boom and bust, but what is growing now in the West is a sense that capitalism itself isn’t just stalled — it is breaking down. Britain is now in the longest period of falling real incomes in its recorded economic history. Global suicide rates have increased 60% since 1970, and in the last couple of years life expectancy began to fall across the Western World. We see signs of social regression in our rising housing prices and faltering infrastructure, in the studies showing that millennials are doing worse than their parents, in the raising of pension ages and ballooning of deficits.

But most of all, we see decline in our environment. The near-future will have fewer animals and more fires, less freshwater and more floods, less farmland and more people. If we halved the amount of CO2 we pump into the atmosphere, we would still be making things worse every single day.

A silence is spreading across the planet, and we are meeting it with silence of our own. We are recalibrating our expectations of nature downwards, forgetting that our lakes should be full of fish, our forests full of birdsong and our fields buzzing with insects.

It is true that the people who are reacting most aggressively against the status quo are also the most likely to deny that we are facing environmental problems at all. They will say their malaise is cultural or economic. They recognise that the economy has stopped working for them, and there are many reasons for that. Automation. The levelling of the playing field from globalisation. The corporate hijacking of politics.

But globalisation, automation and inequality don’t remove value from the economy, they just shift it. Wealth that once went into the pockets of the Western middle-class is now filling the offshore bank accounts of the global elite, or raising living standards in the Developing World. We’re changing how we cut up our pie.

That would cause social upheaval on its own, but our pie is also getting smaller. Western economies are reaching a point of diminishing returns. We’re hiding that fact with our accounting, because GDP figures keep ecological devastation tidily off the balance sheet. But we are chewing through finite resources to try and keep up indefinite growth, and now every year we are trying to do more with less.

Some facts: we are losing around 1% of our fertile top-soil every year. We’ve increased crop yields astoundingly, but the global supply of arable land is shrinking, and by clearing forest we only degrade the earth beneath it. Modern fertilizers are not a renewable resource. Fish stocks are plummeting — by a third in ten years, in Australia. We’re going to have less food to feed more people.

Our social contract has become a Faustian pact: live for today, and go to Hell tomorrow. This is different from the Great Depression or the 1970s, because the expansion of capitalism has reached the limits of the biosphere, and no brilliant fiscal policy can change that. And as a result, a sense of all-encompassing doom is creeping up on everyone from young children to the baby boomers, and mental illness is spiking.

Why should people keep giving peaceful consent to this world? And can we be surprised if, when people see that the pie is shrinking, they rush to cut themselves a bigger slice?

Struggling against Symptoms, Ignoring the Disease

The ecological underpinnings of today’s conflicts can be seen everywhere, from the benign example of British fishermen voting Brexit to escape fishing quotas, to the migration of Fulani herdsman of northern Nigeria, who are pushing bloodily into farmlands because their traditional pastures have turned to desert. The war in Syria was immediately preceded by drought and spiking food-prices. New conflicts are brewing over freshwater rights, such as the tripartite tensions between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over damming the Nile.

Billions of people have become focused on the migration crisis, nationalist resurgence, and America’s tinpot President. We are exhausting ourselves trying to understand the symptoms of our global crises, and doing not nearly enough to face their causes.

Conduct a thought experiment. Imagine that over the next five years we solve today’s most pressing political and economic problems within the ‘normal’ bounds of our current system. I would say that all of the following outcomes are possible, and some likely:

  • Donald Trump resigns or is impeached.
  • The European Union reforms its currency and draws up a new treaty for sharing the impact of migration.
  • Bashar Al-Assad regains complete control over Syria, turning it into a stable police-state.
  • Peace agreements are reached in Yemen, South Sudan, Myanmar, Nigeria and Afghanistan.
  • Iran and North Korea relax their levels of oppression and start reintegrating with the global community.
  • Universal Basic Income proves successful in trials, repairing the social safety net in Western Countries.
  • Mass legalisation of soft drugs leads to a global reduction in criminal violence and prison populations.
  • A global agreement is reached to crack-down on tax havens, giving governments more resources to invest in their own populations.
  • Brexit is concluded to everybody’s satisfaction.

Achieving all of these milestones strains the limits of optimism, but the real problem is that even if we did, our civilisation would still be in huge trouble. We would still face:

  • Permanent freshwater shortages from glacier loss and depleted aquifers.
  • The increasing possibility of a single-year mass crop failure due to drought, heat or soil exhaustion.
  • Falling fish stocks and collapsing biodiversity.
  • The slow inundation of our coastal cities.
  • An ‘oil and coal’ financial bubble, which could trigger a global depression if investors actually come to believe that humanity is committed to leaving fossil fuel reserves untapped.
  • A continuation of the greatest refugee migration in human history, as climate change makes growing areas of the planet uninhabitable at their current population density (rising sea levels alone are predicted to displace hundreds of millions this century).

Any one of these problems could lead to wars between clans, nations or cultures. Warfare will render global progress on interlinked ecological crises even less likely, and encourage further authoritarian policies by ‘strong leaders’. And so we are entering a new politics.

The Politics of Despair

If we want to defend democracy, and I do, we need to start by admitting that as a problem-solving institution it has radically failed over the last twenty years. In the countries I know best: Australia, Britain and the United States, legislative bodies have not passed meaningful major policies since the Global Financial Crisis. Has anything been done about tax havens? The opioid epidemic? Carbon pricing? ‘The Robots’? Gun control? Immigration reform? The euro? Electoral reform? The Syrian war?

In America, healthcare reform was successfully passed, but with such little backing that Trump was able to undercut it by Executive Order. Otherwise, the only popular success I can think of is gay marriage, and even then, politicians in Australia and America wouldn’t act in the face of overwhelming support. In America, it was the Supreme Court that formalised gay marriage at a national level. In Australia, politicians abdicated responsibility to a referendum.

Our politicians are failing partly because they are national figures trying to deal with international problems, but also because they have spent thirty years degrading their own institutions in the name of neoliberal efficiency. In short, Western governments outsourced the management of people’s lives to global bodies and private corporations, and then effectively stopped governing.

Democracies are problem-solving institutions that exist by consent. When they cannot solve the problems, people withdraw their consent and democracy fails — as has happened many times before. Today, democracy and freedom are in global retreat and authoritarian nationalists of varying degree hold power in Russia, the USA, China, India, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Austria, the Philippines and Venezuela, many of them talking nostalgic nonsense about past Golden Ages. These men (all men) were voted in more or less democratically — I doubt whether they will all allow themselves to be voted out.

The new nationalists differ from their globalist predecessors because they unabashedly view politics as a zero-sum game in which they can only win if someone else loses. It is the politics that makes sense when you are fighting over shrinking resources — when there is not enough fresh water, not enough fish, and not enough sky to hold our pollution.

This is the world we are entering. Whether or not global co-operation is our best way out of this mess, increasing numbers of people no longer perceive it as such, and it is perception that drives politics. Hopelessness encourages tribalism, which manifests as increased racism and partisanship within countries, and increased nationalist posturing between them.

There is a logic in tribalism. Unpleasant as it is to admit, it can make sense as a survival strategy for bad times. Some forms of nationalism might be a reasonable response to despair, but at its worst, nationalism bleeds into fascism.

Fascism is a big word, but I think a suitable one for this moment. Fascism is action for its own sake, the nation as ethnic state, legitimisation through violence and conspiracy theories, the cult of the leader. It is the myth of The People, who look and act like people should, versus the Enemies of the People, who are a threat to the State.

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Daily Mail front page, November 4th 2016

This is no longer a historical category. Putin’s Russia meets most characteristics of fascism. Putin has indicated homosexuals (conflated with pedophiles) are The Enemy Within, and there are signs that membership of the Russian tribe is no longer defined legally, as Putin suggested with a recent comment, (which may have involved an ambiguous translation): Maybe they’re not even Russians. Maybe they’re Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews, just with Russian citizenship”.

But Russia is not alone. The emboldened segment of the US Republican Party which talks about ‘Real America’ is fascist-sympathising. Erdogan’s Turkey has pivoted to fascism. You don’t have to dig deep to find a growing neo-fascist movement among the Internet’s misogynist, alt-right, trolls.

Fascism grows among populations that do not believe they have a future. There is no reason to expect peace and prosperity to triumph against a background of worsening climate catastrophe, which is why in 2015 the United States’ Department of Defense described climate change as,

“an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water. These impacts are already occurring, and the scope, scale, and intensity of these impacts are projected to increase over time.”

These impacts are already occurring, and they are going to increasingly drive our politics, even in the ‘nice’ countries. We should all care about that, not just because fascists hurt people, but because history suggests that they are very bad at constructively solving problems.

Failing to Meet the Challenge

Perhaps nationalism would be justified if authoritarian leaders used their growing power to actually respond to the ecological crisis we face, but as far as I know, Xi Jinping excepted, they have shown no interest in doing so.

The resurgence of nationalism is tied-into, and partially funded by, a resurgence in oil and coal. After three years of decline, oil and coal production ticked UP in 2017. The growth of renewables has put fossil fuel producers on a clock — they have only a limited window before their product becomes economically unviable. So we see Brazil offering huge tax-incentives to companies willing to pump its oil fields, and countries like the USA, Canada, Russia and Saudi Arabia all increasing oil production since signing the Paris Climate Agreement to keep warming to 2°C — a target that is already impossible to hit. This is behaviour of governments who have given up the long-term as lost, and are positioning themselves for short-term competition. After all, if we’re entering the Mad Max future we’ll need petrol for our deathmobiles.

It’s not just ‘crazy nationalists’ doing this, but supposedly rational spreadsheet-and-market neoliberals. But rather than fight back against this trashing of their beloved land, the new nationalists have turned off their knowledge that the world is burning. They prefer to face the glorious past and walk backwards into disaster. This will blow up in the authoritarian’s faces in twenty years, but by that point disaster will just be used as an excuse for more oppression.

The new nationalists are not all right-wing. The Populist Left has reached back to a purer age of its own, and turned to baby boomers untainted by neoliberalism. Figures like Jeremy Corbyn or Mexican President Andrés Obrador declare climate change a serious risk, but it ranks low on their day-to-day concerns and their policies show no real grasp of the scale of change we need to implement. The young progressives who support them care about their own carbon footprint, but as a cohort the young are the least able to recognise the damage that has already been inflicted on their natural world.

As long as the Left defines itself in opposition to the resurgent Right, it keeps fighting on their terms, which means a focus on social issues first, economic inequality second, migration third and the environment lagging behind. Social justice campaigns have proven incredibly successful in recent decades, and come with ready-made Bad Guys to topple. When it comes to climate change, the Bad Guys are everyone, and we don’t even know what success would look like.

Social and economic equality would go a long way to stabilising our planet, but they are not enough on their own to save us from a civilization-wide crash. Of course progressives need to push back against authoritarianism, aggression and corruption, but we also have to recognise that without a functioning biosphere, it’s all a bit moot. A Left which does not have a realistic response to our ecological catastrophe does not deserve to be taken seriously.

If we want people to face the future, we have to come up with a better one.

Rational Hope

Most of today’s nationalists are not evil, they are angry and miserable. And in their way, they are facing our historical moment more honestly than the rest of us. Even as they misdiagnose the causes, they are acknowledging that our societies cannot continue the way they have been, and I agree. I don’t have much faith in their solutions, but we have to engage with them. If we want migration, we need to explain how much is too much, and if there is no limit we need to explain how we will build the infrastructure for millions of new arrivals.

This is the challenge that Nationalism poses. In a world where many of us are going to have to make do with less, the worst members of our society are telling us to close the gates, look out for our own, and resign ourselves to what will come.

If they succeed, communities will withdraw, hundreds of millions of people will probably die, and nations will break-down into smaller and poorer units. Right now, it’s the transnational organisations like NATO and the EU that are teetering. In twenty years it could be nation states themselves which fracture. Almost everyone in Eurasia today lives in a remnant shard of a once-mighty empire. Once you begin to divide your tribes, the process can continue indefinitely.

Maybe it makes sense. Perhaps smaller populations can more easily find balance with their environment, and some of the most productive advances in human history have grown out of city-states, not empires. But when we look at the sections of the world where the nation states marked on maps have already broken down, I am not convinced. There are reasons why migrants flow out of failed states, and not into them.

So if we don’t want that future, liberals and globalists have to offer a narrative that offers hope for a return to progress, or at least stability. Calling out horrible people as horrible isn’t enough. While we focus on the symptoms of decline and not their causes, ‘good’ cannot win in the confines of our current politics. As long as people are living in a Despair Society, they will react accordingly.

What is coming next? I don’t know. But I am confident of two things:

  1. Humanity is NOT going to go extinct. We’re much too clever.
  2. Our society IS going to change dramatically. Maintaining the status quo is physically impossible.

So the next twenty years will be about making global choices. Do we build up our complex institutions, or slim them down? Do we double-down on technology, or step back from it?

If you want to retain your democracy, you have to actually make those choices. You have to understand what is coming, and vote accordingly. People are going to be coming along soon, in all countries, saying that they have the Solution to all our ecological problems. If we choose to listen to the wrong ones, by the time we find out they were con-men it will be too late.

Most places are likely to decline over the coming decades, but some decline is ok, it really is. If the United States’ per-capita gross national income were to be cut in half tomorrow, Americans wouldn’t be back in the Stone Age — they would be back in the 1990s, a decade where I managed to somehow scrounge for survival with the help of Tamagotchis and slap-bands.

There are lots of signs that we can get through this. Cities are safer and greener than ever before. Population growth is slowing. People are becoming vegetarian in unprecedented numbers, which will ease the pressure on food. Energised global campaigns have proven they can change the world, and upcoming politicians like New York’s Alexandria Cortez are taking climate change seriously in their policies. We already have the technology to turn seawater fresh and power our civilisation from the sun, we have the empathy to care for fellow humans we’ve never met, and we have the proven courage to stand against dictatorship.

All we have to do is change everything, but we’ve done that before. We’ve done it over and over. In just one lifetime, Western social relationships have changed beyond our grandparents’ imagining, our economic relationships can do the same.

I am confident that we can heal our planet, the question is just how long we wait until we do? Because until we can all see a light at the end of the tunnel, we’re going to be savaging each other in the darkness.

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