How Did We Get Here?
A megadrought is spreading across the US and Canada and it’s already having a profound impact on both countries. A heat wave in Canada triggered over 800 wildfires, led to over 700 people dying, the town of Lytton being burned down almost entirely, and an emergency order being issued for northwestern Ontario. The US is also seeing major forest fires, extreme droughts, and failing crop production with no end in sight.
Extreme weather events that used to be unheard of are rapidly becoming common occurrences. We’re learning new terms like wet-bulb temperatures, and when they indicate that the body is no longer able to cool itself through sweat. Some other recent terms include zombie fires, heat domes, and pyrocumulonimbus—a fire-breathing storm system. High temperatures are also destroying wildlife on an unprecedented scale with some creatures literally being cooked by the extreme heat.
All of this rightly leads us to wonder about the continued habitability of our planet. Unfortunately, it’s not intuitive that temperature changes of a couple of degrees up or down should lead to such drastic problems. After all, we have a range of hot and cold climates on our planet that can differ by dozens of degrees.
The problem is that most life in different biomes around the planet is adapted to a fairly narrow range of conditions. Plants like cactuses can indeed survive in hot and dry conditions, but they quickly die when the climate becomes cooler or more humid. Conversely, plants like pines might do well in cooler environments such as Northern Canada, but are not able to survive in a desert.
Our biosphere evolves to adapt to changing conditions on a geological timescale where it takes thousands or millions of years for major shifts in climate to occur. Natural selection is a gradual process that requires many generations for organisms to evolve in order to thrive in new conditions. However, we’re now changing our environment on a timescale of decades. The core problem is this incredibly rapid rate of change as opposed to absolute temperature. Disturbingly, a recent UN report states that human driven climate change is unfolding even faster than we’ve anticipated.
Extinctions occur when organisms aren’t able to adapt quickly enough to changes in their environment. Earth has gone through a number of global extinction events in the past, and we are in the middle of a global extinction event named after us as I write these words. We’re currently at risk of a cascading collapse of many ecosystems. As the smallest and most vulnerable organisms, such as insects, start dying out, then organisms that depend on them die out as well. This leads to whole webs of life rapidly unweaving. Yet, humanity is obviously dependent on a healthy biosphere in order to continue its own existence. If we fail to halt the ongoing extinction then we’ll hold the dubious distinction of being the first species to knowingly, and therefore on some level intentionally, go extinct.
The current situation is so dire that even mainstream organizations such as IPCC, KPMG, and the IEA are sounding the alarm. KPMG’s report states that human civilization is headed for collapse within a couple of decades unless we drastically restructure our global economy away from growth and consumerism, and IPCC saying it’s ‘code red for humanity’.
If any of this sounds alarmist to you then consider that midwestern drought in the US is already causing devastating crop failures, water shortages, and severe infrastructure damage. It’s not hard to imagine how food insecurity and collapsing infrastructure can lead to breakdown in civil relations. As parts of the globe become uninhabitable then millions and possibly billions of people will be displaced leading to conflict over remaining resources such as fresh water and arable land. These conflicts will in turn lead to a breakdown of the our global economy that’s reliant on goods being manufactured in countries projected to be most affected by extreme weather. Civil unrest is already unfolding around the globe including many developed countries such as the US, UK, Canada and France. As material conditions continue to decline civil unrest will only continue to get worse.
Unfortunately, we’re not all in this together. The billionaire class continues to direct stupendous resources towards their vanity projects instead of pitching in to solve our common problems. The billionaire space race is a perfect example of this activity, with private individuals using wealth comparable to that of entire nations in order to repeat public sector achievements of the 1960s. These resources were hijacked from the rest of humanity and should instead be directed towards ensuring our collective survival while there is still time to act.
At this point, you might rightly be wondering how and why all of this was allowed to happen. After all we have known this was the trajectory we were on since at least the 1970s. Why weren’t we transitioning our economies towards sustainability and protecting our environment?
There are of course many factors at play here, but one of fundamental problems is that we’ve structured our global economy around capitalism. Economic growth and consumerism are the pillars of this economic system.
The need for companies to constantly produce goods in order to continue operating creates perverse incentives for commodity production. Creating goods that last for a long time does not result in a sustainable business model. It’s much more profitable to create goods that need to be replaced regularly. However, in some cases even cheaply produced goods last longer than companies would like leading to such wonderful inventions as planned obsolescence. Nearly half the food produced is thrown away globally as people starve. Companies like Amazon regularly destroy goods in order to artificially inflate prices. The logic of capitalism is fundamentally at odds with the sustainable development of humanity.
We need to shift gears towards an economic model where production is seen as a cost, and we strive to create goods that last. We should also strive to reduce the need for labor since that’s a direct way to reduce our emissions. For example, a study in the UK found that a 4-day work week would shrink emissions by 127m tonnes. Turns out that we could work less, have more free time, and help save the environment!
Another recent study states that despite population growth, 2050 global energy use could be reduced to 1960s levels. Doing that would once again necessitate radical demand-side changes to reduce consumption to levels of sufficiency. Finally, the 2000-watt society in Switzerland shows that it’s perfectly possible for people to live a comfortable lifestyle using only 48kWh of energy per day.
Solutions to our problems exist and they are well understood. All we need is the political will to implement them. Let’s not choose to go extinct just because we were too unsure of ourselves to rise up and fight for our future and the future of our children.
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