Concerns about civilizational collapse and human extinction in the foreseeable future are rising and moving from the fringes into the mainstream. Many who share these concerns are understandably prone to despair and cynicism. What are the various life-serving ways to confront and respond to these daunting realities?
An increasing number of people are coming to the conclusion that there’s a non-trivial chance that civilization will collapse – or, more terminally, that the human species will die off – within the next few hundred years, thanks to climate chaos and/or many variously related threats.*
These extreme but no longer “crazy” views are drifting towards the mainstream. Quite in addition to the many apocalyptic movies, novels, and music – the R.E.M. anthem “it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine” being exemplary – former Vice President Al Gore recently suggested that civilization might not survive the next 100 years – and two separate New York Times op eds by Roy Scranton and Samuel Scheffler (below) recently explored the philosophical and psychological implications of human extinction.
These cultural phenomena are the tip of an iceberg of disturbed collective consciousness increasingly haunting the minds, hearts, and spirits of ordinary citizens who really don’t want to think about it or talk about it.
For years writers seriously concerned about climate change and peak oil have been pioneering ways to address these emerging realities head-on, with varying degrees of pessimism, practicality, positive vision, and spiritual inspiration. Some of the many voices I know of in this choir include:
- Culture Change
- Transition Towns network
- John Michael Greer
- Post-Carbon Institute
- Oil Empire
- Collapse of Industrial Civilization
A quick look at any of them will tell you whether they speak to your own needs and perspectives. In addition, below I’ve excerpted some specific recent articles that will give you a taste of what I’ve been reading lately that led to this post.
But I want to make clear: In this post I’m not wishing to promote or counter any of these views or responses. What I want to do here is help bring the issue out of the closet so it can be talked about more freely.
As hard as collapse and extinction are to think and talk about, I do not believe that doing so makes them more likely. On the contrary, I believe exploring them may free up energy to take more creative, wholesome action together, regardless of how things turn out. I’m being guided here by an understanding that what can’t be spoken erodes our spirits and empowers the darker, less free parts of our nature.
I believe that it is time to look more courageously at the full vista of what we face in our and our children’s future. And then make of it what we can, fully connected with our love of life.
Furthermore, given the reality that we don’t actually know what will happen, systems science and evolutionary ecology suggest that diversity of responses will increase our chances for collective resilience.
In my next post I’ll discuss some of my own strategies for affirming life in the strange circumstances in which we find ourselves – indeed, that we have collectively made for ourselves – even in the face of the possible end of civilization or the human race itself.
* The various threats related to climate change include (but are not limited to) peak oil and other rapidly depleting resources, failed agriculture and consequent starvation, the degradation and death of entire ecosystems like oceans and rain forests, new or resistant diseases (or diseases in new places), accelerating species extinctions, nuclear (war or power) catastrophes, widespread wars and failed states, and super-technologies whose potentially massively destructive impacts are unleashed purposefully or by miscalculation, error, terror, or random alienated or inspired hacking.
Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene
By Roy Scranton
The New York Times
We have passed the point of no return. From the point of view of policy experts, climate scientists and national security officials, the question is no longer whether global warming exists or how we might stop it, but how we are going to deal with it.
There’s a word for this new era we live in: the Anthropocene. This term, taken up by geologists, pondered by intellectuals and discussed in the pages of publications such as The Economist and The New York Times, represents the idea that we have entered a new epoch in Earth’s geological history, one characterized by the arrival of the human species as a geological force. The Nobel-Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen coined the term in 2002, and it has steadily gained acceptance as evidence has increasingly mounted that the changes wrought by global warming will affect not just the world’s climate and biological diversity, but its very geology — and not just for a few centuries, but for millenniums. The geophysicist David Archer’s 2009 book, “The Long Thaw: How Humans are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate,” lays out a clear and concise argument for how huge concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and melting ice will radically transform the planet, beyond freak storms and warmer summers, beyond any foreseeable future.
…The challenge the Anthropocene poses is a challenge not just to national security, to food and energy markets, or to our “way of life” — though these challenges are all real, profound, and inescapable. The greatest challenge the Anthropocene poses may be to our sense of what it means to be human. Within 100 years — within three to five generations — we will face average temperatures 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than today, rising seas at least three to 10 feet higher, and worldwide shifts in crop belts, growing seasons and population centers. Within a thousand years, unless we stop emitting greenhouse gases wholesale right now, humans will be living in a climate the Earth hasn’t seen since the Pliocene, three million years ago, when oceans were 75 feet higher than they are today. We face the imminent collapse of the agricultural, shipping and energy networks upon which the global economy depends, a large-scale die-off in the biosphere that’s already well on its way, and our own possible extinction. If homo sapiens (or some genetically modified variant) survives the next millenniums, it will be survival in a world unrecognizably different from the one we have inhabited…
[T]he biggest problems the Anthropocene poses are precisely those that have always been at the root of humanistic and philosophical questioning: “What does it mean to be human?” and “What does it mean to live?” In the epoch of the Anthropocene, the question of individual mortality — “What does my life mean in the face of death?” — is universalized and framed in scales that boggle the imagination. What does human existence mean against 100,000 years of climate change? What does one life mean in the face of species death or the collapse of global civilization? How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end?
These questions have no logical or empirical answers. They are philosophical problems par excellence. Many thinkers, including Cicero, Montaigne, Karl Jaspers, and The Stone’s own Simon Critchley, have argued that studying philosophy is learning how to die. If that’s true, then we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age — for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene. The rub is that now we have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization….
The human psyche naturally rebels against the idea of its end. Likewise, civilizations have throughout history marched blindly toward disaster, because humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today — it is unnatural for us to think that this way of life, this present moment, this order of things is not stable and permanent. Across the world today, our actions testify to our belief that we can go on like this forever, burning oil, poisoning the seas, killing off other species, pumping carbon into the air, ignoring the ominous silence of our coal mine canaries in favor of the unending robotic tweets of our new digital imaginarium. Yet the reality of global climate change is going to keep intruding on our fantasies of perpetual growth, permanent innovation and endless energy, just as the reality of mortality shocks our casual faith in permanence.
The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, or how we should put up sea walls to protect Alphabet City, or when we should evacuate Hoboken. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning. The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.
The choice is a clear one. We can continue acting as if tomorrow will be just like yesterday, growing less and less prepared for each new disaster as it comes, and more and more desperately invested in a life we can’t sustain. Or we can learn to see each day as the death of what came before, freeing ourselves to deal with whatever problems the present offers without attachment or fear.
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The Importance of the Afterlife. Seriously.
by Samuel Scheffler
21 September 2013
The New York Times.
I believe in life after death. My belief in life after death is more mundane. What I believe is that other people will continue to live after I myself have died. You probably make the same assumption in your own case. Although we know that humanity won’t exist forever, most of us take it for granted that the human race will survive, at least for a while, after we ourselves are gone.
Because we take this belief for granted, we don’t think much about its significance. Yet I think that this belief plays an extremely important role in our lives, quietly but critically shaping our values, commitments and sense of what is worth doing. Astonishing though it may seem, there are ways in which the continuing existence of other people after our deaths — even that of complete strangers — matters more to us than does our own survival and that of our loved ones.
. . . Of course, many people are terrified of dying. But even people who fear death (and even those who do not believe in a personal afterlife) remain confident of the value of their activities despite knowing that they will die someday.
. . . The knowledge that we and everyone we know and love will someday die does not cause most of us to lose confidence in the value of our daily activities. But the knowledge that no new people would come into existence would make many of those things seem pointless… [O]ur capacity to find purpose and value in our lives depends on what we expect to happen to others after our deaths.
. . . But will humanity survive for a good long time? …[We] know that there are serious threats to humanity’s survival. Not all of these threats are human-made, but some of the most pressing certainly are, like those posed by climate change and nuclear proliferation. People who worry about these problems often urge us to remember our obligations to future generations, whose fate depends so heavily on what we do today. We are obligated, they stress, not to make the earth uninhabitable or to degrade the environment in which our descendants will live.
I agree. But there is also another side to the story. Yes, our descendants depend on us to make possible their existence and wellbeing. But we also depend on them and their existence if we are to lead flourishing lives ourselves. And so our reasons to overcome the threats to humanity’s survival do not derive solely from our obligations to our descendants. We have another reason to try to ensure a flourishing future for those who come after us: it is simply that, to an extent that we rarely recognize or acknowledge, they already matter so much to us.
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Why We Cannot Save the World
by Dave Pollard
Hardly a day passes when I don’t hear a cry for us all to work together to do X, because if we do that, everything will change and the world will be saved (or at least be rid of some horrific and intractable problem and hence made immeasurably better). Many variations of X are proposed, and they’re often about (a) comprehensively reforming our political, economic, education or other system, (b) achieving some large-scale behaviour change through mass persuasion or education, or (c) bringing together great minds and volunteer energies to bring ingenuity and innovation to bear collaboratively on some issue or crisis.
It is perfectly reasonable to believe that such change is possible: Look at what we have done in past to eradicate diseases, to institute democracy and ‘free’ enterprise worldwide, to dramatically reduce the prevalence of slavery, to pull the world out of the Great Depression, to produce astonishing technologies and improve the position of women and minorities, we are told. All we need is the same kind of effort dedicated to X. If we work together we can accomplish anything.
It is perfectly reasonable to believe that such change is possible. But such change, I would argue, is not possible. The belief that substantive and sustained change comes about by large-scale concerted efforts, or by the proverbial Margaret Mead “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” misses a critical point — throughout human history such change efforts have only occurred when there was no choice but to do them, when the alternative of inaction was so obviously and inarguably calamitous that the status quo was out of the question. And even then such efforts usually fail — either they run up against fierce and powerful opposition and are suppressed, or they bring about a new status quo that is arguably worse than what it replaced. …
We can be persuaded that our exhaustion, our physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual and imaginative poverty, the debilitating chronic diseases that are now epidemic in our culture, the ghastly suffering to which we subject other animals in the name of food and human safety, the epidemic of physical, sexual and psychological abuse in our homes and institutions, the endemic sense of grief and depression about our lives and our world, the accelerating extinction of all non-human life on Earth except for human parasites, the rapid depletion of cheap energy upon which our whole culture totally depends, the endlessly growing gap between the tiny affluent minority and the massive struggling majority, the runaway climate change that our human pollutants has triggered, the utter impossibility of ever repaying the staggering debts we have dumped on future generations, and the consequences when those debts come due — we can be persuaded that all of these things can be somehow fixed, that all of these unintended consequences of the way we have been living our lives for a thousand generations, can somehow be resolved in one or two, by a concerted effort to do X.
They cannot. That is not how the world, or human civilizations, work, or ever have worked. Our human civilization, like all living systems, is complex, and complex systems do not lend themselves to mechanical ‘fixes’. They evolve, slowly, unpredictably, over millennia. We may be able to change many malleable human minds in a hurry, if we’re motivated, and if we must, at least for a while until we can go back to what we were doing. But we cannot change our bodies, which are still evolving slowly, trying to adapt to our minds’ relatively recent decision to leave the rainforest, to eat meat, to settle in large, crowded, stressful, hierarchical cities, to walk upright. Our weary, pretzel-bent bodies are complaining about the changes we have forced on them over the past million years, and struggling with them. Too much too fast, they say.
And we cannot begin to enable the ecosystems of which we are a part to adapt to these changes, ecosystems now in states of massive collapse, exhaustion, desolation and extinction. We do not know what to do. We are limited to mechanical solutions — technology and engineering — and mechanical solutions cannot ‘solve’ these crises — crises that technology and engineering have themselves substantially caused…..
So why do we go on clinging to this hopeful, idealistic view that we can [“save the world”]? I think it’s because we want to do our best, so we want to believe we have enough control over ourselves and our actions and the world in which we live to be able to “progress”, to solve problems and deal effectively with crises. Life is wonderful and we want it to go on and be wonderful for everyone, now and in the future…
[But] The challenges we face are overwhelming, and they’ve been accelerating in size and complexity for millennia. The more we learn about them, and their interrelatedness, the more daunting they become….
[If] we want to deal with the economic crises we have precipitated, neither austerity nor stimulus will work. We have to reinvent our whole economy as a steady-state one without debt or credit. But we can’t do that, because without growth our economy will collapse and plunge us into the worst depression civilization has ever known. And with growth our resources will run out faster and climate change will accelerate, precipitating both energy and ecological collapse globally. We have created a problem that has no solution, and it’s the same one, as Jared Diamond and Ronald Wright have explained, that led to the downfall of past civilizations. Except this time the problem is global, and we’re all going down.
The same kind of dilemma faces us in trying to cope with peak oil. Research such as George Monbiot’s has demonstrated that there are no renewable or sustainable substitutes for oil (even with the loftiest predictions about human ingenuity and improvements in technology) that can provide anywhere near the power that hydrocarbons do. But our whole civilization, even our food system, is hooked on cheap oil. When it runs out, in a series of crises that will get steadily much worse as the century unfolds, our economy will collapse, all of our technologies will run out of power, and billions will starve. A future world with ten billion people trying to live on a planet that, without the subsidy of cheap, abundant energy, can perhaps support a tenth that number, is almost too ghastly to imagine. And in our desperate effort to forestall that energy and resource collapse, we are likely, just as the Easter Islanders did, to excavate every mountaintop, dig into the seas and the sands and the deepest depths of the planet, and cut down every tree until nothing is left standing.
That is why, when a problem or series of problems or crises appear intractable, extremely difficult if not impossible to resolve, our tendency is to resist dealing with them, to deny the problems, to leave it up to future generations or higher powers to deal with them….
My hope is that eventually enough people will …start to focus attention on adapting to and increasing our resilience in the face of, the cascading crises that will eventually (I think by century’s end) lead to civilizational collapse.
This will be grim work, because these crises are likely to be ghastly, and we are totally unequipped to deal with them. And it will be local work, because centralized ‘organizations’ will be crumbling and unable to provide any ‘top-down’ or coordinated help. We can start now (as soon as each of us ‘must’) to acquire the old and new skills and capacities we will need to cope with collapse — relearning and relocalizing many basic skills of our grandparents, both technical (e.g. permaculture) and soft skills (e.g. facilitation), as we rediscover how to live in community and how to live together self-sufficiently….
Until the old systems die, we won’t be able to see what, and how much, really needs to be done anyway, and the remains of the old systems will struggle defiantly to resist new experiments (this is already happening). We can do some advance learning, and practice dealing with crises in a personal, proactive way (i.e. rather than expecting the government to fix each crisis as it occurs, and to tell us what to do).
We can get to know our neighbours, including the ones who are annoying and ignorant and unable to self-manage, and what we can do with and for each other, and lay the foundations for true, local communities. We can get to know the place we live, the organic process of which we are most immediately a part, and what else lives and can naturally thrive there. We can experiment with new models and constructs of how to live sustainably and joyfully, provided we recognize they are just experiments and are unlikely to flourish until the old systems crumble.
Much of this early preparation can be easy, and fun, if we choose to make space for it. And this still leaves us time, time saved by not trying to hold on desperately to our dying civilization culture, to just be, to play, to do things that are easy and fun, to live each moment of this amazing life at this amazing time to the fullest. To free ourselves, and be wild again, welcomed back into the organic process that is all-life-on-Earth, where we always belonged.
[The comments on this blog post are particularly diverse and stimulating. I highly recommend reading them. – Tom Atlee]
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Rationally Speaking, We Are All Apocalyptic Now
by Robert Jensen
“Revelation” from Latin and “apocalypse” from Greek, both mean a lifting of the veil, a disclosure of something that had been hidden….
This “revelation” is simple: We’ve built a world based on the assumption that we will have endless energy to subsidize endless economic expansion, which was supposed to magically produce justice. That world is over, both in reality and in dreams. Either we begin to build a different world, or there will be no world capable of sustaining a large-scale human presence….
A calm apocalypticism is not crazy, but rather can help us confront honestly the crises of our time and strategize constructively about possible responses.
[Another article along these lines is Elliot Sperber’s At the Edge of the Apocalypse – Tom Atlee]
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Sleepwalking to Extinction
By Richard Smith, AdBusters
18 November 13
[Most of these excerpts cover the theme of Smith’s article. But the whole article is filled with very specific examples of the inadequacy of the fixes being offered within the current economic system. – Tom Atlee]
… Why are we marching toward disaster, “sleepwalking to extinction” as the Guardian’s George Monbiot once put it? Why can’t we slam on the brakes before we ride off the cliff to collapse? I’m going to argue here that the problem is rooted in the requirement of capitalist production. Large corporations can’t help themselves; they can’t change or change very much. So long as we live under this corporate capitalist system we have little choice but to go along in this destruction, to keep pouring on the gas instead of slamming on the brakes, and that the only alternative – impossible as this may seem right now – is to overthrow this global economic system and all of the governments of the 1% that prop it up and replace them with a global economic democracy, a radical bottom-up political democracy, an eco-socialist* civilization….
[Definition from Wikipedia – “Eco-socialists advocate dismantling capitalism, focusing on common ownership of the means of production by freely associated producers, and restoring the commons.” Note that this is different from state socialism as practiced by “communist” countries. – Tom Atlee]
From climate change to natural resource overconsumption to pollution, the engine that has powered three centuries of accelerating economic development, revolutionizing technology, science, culture and human life itself is, today, a roaring out-of-control locomotive mowing down continents of forests, sweeping oceans of life, clawing out mountains of minerals, pumping out lakes of fuels, devouring the planet’s last accessible natural resources to turn them into “product,” while destroying fragile global ecologies built up over eons of time. Between 1950 and 2000 the global human population more than doubled from 2.5 to 6 billion. But in these same decades, consumption of major natural resources soared more than sixfold on average, some much more. Natural gas consumption grew nearly twelvefold, bauxite (aluminum ore) fifteenfold. And so on. At current rates, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson says that “half the world’s great forests have already been leveled and half the world’s plant and animal species may be gone by the end of this century.”
Corporations aren’t necessarily evil, though plenty are diabolically evil, but they can’t help themselves. They’re just doing what they’re supposed to do for the benefit of their shareholders. Shell Oil can’t help but loot Nigeria and the Arctic and cook the climate. That’s what shareholders demand. BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and other mining giants can’t resist mining Australia’s abundant coal and exporting it to China and India. Mining accounts for 19% of Australia’s GDP and substantial employment even as coal combustion is the single worst driver of global warming. IKEA can’t help but level the forests of Siberia and Malaysia to feed the Chinese mills building their flimsy disposable furniture (IKEA is the third largest consumer of lumber in the world). Apple can’t help it if the cost of extracting the “rare earths” it needs to make millions of new iThings each year is the destruction of the eastern Congo – violence, rape, slavery, forced induction of child soldiers, along with poisoning local waterways. Monsanto and DuPont and Syngenta and Bayer Crop Science have no choice but to wipe out bees, butterflies, birds, small farmers and extinguish crop diversity to secure their grip on the world’s food supply while drenching the planet in their Roundups and Atrazines and neonicotinoids.
This is how giant corporations are wiping out life on earth in the course of a routine business day. And the bigger the corporations grow, the worse the problems become.
In Adam Smith’s day, when the first factories and mills produced hat pins and iron tools and rolls of cloth by the thousands, capitalist freedom to make whatever they wanted didn’t much matter because they didn’t have much impact on the global environment. But today, when everything is produced in the millions and billions, then trashed today and reproduced all over again tomorrow, when the planet is looted and polluted to support all this frantic and senseless growth, it matters – a lot.
The world’s climate scientists tell us we’re facing a planetary emergency. They’ve been telling us since the 1990s that if we don’t cut global fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions by 80-90% below 1990 levels by 2050 we will cross critical tipping points and global warming will accelerate beyond any human power to contain it. Yet despite all the ringing alarm bells, no corporation and no government can oppose growth and, instead, every capitalist government in the world is putting pedal to the metal to accelerate growth, to drive us full throttle off the cliff to collapse….
We all know what we have to do: suppress greenhouse gas emissions. Stop over-consuming natural resources. Stop the senseless pollution of the earth, waters, and atmosphere with toxic chemicals. Stop producing waste that can’t be recycled by nature. Stop the destruction of biological diversity and ensure the rights of other species to flourish. We don’t need any new technological breakthroughs to solve these problems. Mostly, we just [need to] stop doing what we’re doing. But we can’t stop because we’re all locked into an economic system in which companies have to grow to compete and reward their shareholders and because we all need the jobs….
Still, it’s one thing for James Hansen or Bill McKibben to say we need to “leave the coal in the hole, the oil in the soil, the gas under the grass,” to call for “severe curbs” in GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions – in the abstract. But think about what this means in our capitalist economy. Most of us, even passionate environmental activists, don’t really want to face up to the economic implications of the science we defend….
Of course, no one wants to hear this because, given capitalism, this would unavoidably mean mass bankruptcies, global economic collapse, depression and mass unemployment around the world. That’s why in April 2013, in laying the political groundwork for his approval of the XL pipeline in some form, President Obama said “the politics of this are tough.” The earth’s temperature probably isn’t the “number one concern” for workers who haven’t seen a raise in a decade; have an underwater mortgage; are spending $40 to fill their gas tank, can’t afford a hybrid car; and face other challenges.” Obama wants to save the planet but given capitalism his “number one concern” has to be growing the economy, growing jobs. Given capitalism – today, tomorrow, next year and every year – economic growth will always be the overriding priority … till we barrel right off the cliff to collapse….
If there’s no market mechanism to stop plundering the planet then, again, what alternative is there but to impose an emergency contraction on resource consumption?
This doesn’t mean we would have to de-industrialize and go back to riding horses and living in log cabins. But it does mean that we would have to abandon the “consumer economy” – shut down all kinds of unnecessary, wasteful and polluting industries from junkfood to cruise ships, disposable Pampers to disposable H&M clothes, disposable IKEA furniture, endless new model cars, phones, electronic games, the lot. Plus all the banking, advertising, junk mail, most retail, etc. We would have [to] completely redesign production to replace “fast junk food” with healthy, nutritious, fresh “slow food,” replace “fast fashion” with “slow fashion,” bring back mending, alterations and local tailors and shoe repairmen. We would have to completely redesign production of appliances, electronics, housewares, furniture and so on to be as durable and long-lived as possible. Bring back appliance repairmen and such. We would have to abolish the throwaway disposables industries, the packaging and plastic bag industrial complex, bring back refillable bottles and the like. We would have to design and build housing to last for centuries, to be as energy efficient as possible, to be reconfigurable, and shareable. We would have to vastly expand public transportation to curb vehicle use but also build those we do need to last and be shareable like Zipcar or Paris’ municipally-owned “Autolib” shared electric cars.
These are the sorts of things we would have to do if we really want to stop overconsumption and save the world. All these changes are simple, self-evident, no great technical challenge. They just require a completely different kind of economy, an economy geared to producing what we need while conserving resources for future generations of humans and for other species with which we share this planet….
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Surviving Climate Change
By Michael T. Klare, TomDispatch
18 November 13
….With an awareness of climate change growing and as intensifying floods, fires, droughts, and storms become an inescapable feature of daily life across the planet, more people are joining environmental groups and engaging in increasingly bold protest actions. Sooner or later, government leaders are likely to face multiple eruptions of mass public anger and may, in the end, be forced to make radical adjustments in energy policy or risk being swept aside.
In fact, it is possible to imagine such a green energy revolution erupting in one part of the world and spreading like wildfire to others. Because climate change is going to inflict increasingly severe harm on human populations, the impulse to rebel is only likely to gain in strength across the planet….
[After describing a Turkish uprising of this kind, the author turns to China:]
The same trajectory of events — a small-scale environmental protest evolving into a full-scale challenge to governmental authority — can be seen in other mass protests of recent years.
Take a Chinese example: in October 2012, students and middle class people joined with poor farmers to protest the construction of an $8.8 billion petrochemical facility in Ningbo, a city of 3.4 million people south of Shanghai. In a country where environmental pollution has reached nearly unprecedented levels, these protests were touched off by fears that the plant, to be built by the state-owned energy company Sinopec with local government support, would produce paraxylene, a toxic substance used in plastics, paints, and cleaning solvents.
Here, too, the initial spark that led to the protests was small-scale. On October 22nd, some 200 farmers obstructed a road near the district government’s office in an attempt to block the plant’s construction. After the police were called in to clear the blockade, students from nearby Ningbo University joined the protests. Using social media, the protestors quickly enlisted support from middle-class residents of the city who converged in their thousands on downtown Ningbo. When riot police moved in to break up the crowds, the protestors fought back, attacking police cars and throwing bricks and water bottles. While the police eventually gained the upper hand after several days of pitched battles, the Chinese government concluded that mass action of this sort, occurring in the heart of a major city and featuring an alliance of students, farmers, and young professionals, was too great a threat. After five days of fighting, the government gave in, announcing the cancellation of the petrochemical project.
The Ningbo demonstrations were hardly the first such upheavals to erupt in China. They did, however, highlight a growing governmental vulnerability to mass environmental protest. For decades, the reigning Chinese Communist Party has justified its monopolistic hold on power by citing its success in generating rapid economic growth. But that growth means the use of ever more fossil fuels and petrochemicals, which, in turn, means increased carbon emissions and disastrous atmospheric pollution, including one “airpocalypse” after another.
Until recently, most Chinese seemed to accept such conditions as the inevitable consequences of growth, but it seems that tolerance of environmental degradation is rapidly diminishing. As a result, the party finds itself in a terrible bind: it can slow development as a step toward cleaning up the environment, incurring a risk of growing economic discontent, or it can continue its growth-at-all-costs policy, and find itself embroiled in a firestorm of Ningbo-style environmental protests.
This dilemma — the environment versus the economy — has proven to be at the heart of similar mass eruptions elsewhere on the planet….
[The author then explores protests in Germany, Japan, and the U.S. and says the following:]
The Explosions Ahead
What these episodes tell us is that people around the world are becoming ever more concerned about energy policy as it affects their lives and are prepared — often on short notice — to engage in mass protests. At the same time, governments globally, with rare exceptions, are deeply wedded to existing energy policies. These almost invariably turn them into targets, no matter what the original spark for mass opposition. As the results of climate change become ever more disruptive, government officials will find themselves repeatedly choosing between long-held energy plans and the possibility of losing their grip on power.
Because few governments are as yet prepared to launch the sorts of efforts that might even begin to effectively address the peril of climate change, they will increasingly be seen as obstacles to essential action and so as entities that need to be removed. In short, climate rebellion — spontaneous protests that may at any moment evolve into unquenchable mass movements — is on the horizon. Faced with such rebellions, recalcitrant governments will respond with some combination of accommodation to popular demands and harsh repression.
Many governments will be at risk from such developments, but the Chinese leadership appears to be especially vulnerable. The ruling party has staked its future viability on an endless carbon-fueled growth agenda that is steadily destroying the country’s environment. It has already faced half-a-dozen environmental upheavals like the one in Ningbo, and has responded to them by agreeing to protestors’ demands or by employing brute force. The question is: How long can this go on?…