Is industrial civilization incompatible with a livable climate?

Adam Kranz

I hold industrial civilization culprit in the world’s coming environmental collapse. The case of climate change illustrates very nicely how this is true. My discussion will hopefully also show why popping the bubble of civilization is the only way we can effectively avoid catastrophic climate change.

Using the “free gift” of fossil fuels, we have side-stepped some collapse-inducing environmental catastrophes: wood scarcity and soil depletion. Yet, as we all now know — though some still choose to ignore it — we have stepped away from those catastrophes into a much larger one: climate change.

The IPCC predicts that a 3 degree Celsius rise in global mean surface temperature would mean doom for 21-52 percent of Earth’s species. And a recent report from the Royal Society claims that “there is now little to no chance of maintaining the rise in global mean surface temperature at below 2 degrees Celsius.”

So far, no action has been taken that will start reducing global emissions. They continue to increase exponentially every year.

However, several plans have been put forward that would have a significant impact. Some reports, including the prominent Stern Report, advocate emissions reductions limited to an “economically feasible” extent. That is, the extent of reductions should be determined not by science but by what the economy can handle without ending its ceaseless growth.

The growth of the economy is thus put before the needs of the planet and even the future of economic growth. The future cost of climate change will certainly be higher than the present cost of averting it, regardless of how high that may be.

Paul Hawken, author of “Natural Capitalism,” advocates the integration of ecosystem services into the costs of everyday economics. This would theoretically address the root of the problem: the idea that a livable climate has no value. However, it’s a program with substantial practical issues.

First, Hawken envisions massive increases in efficiency as internalization makes carbon-intensive products more expensive. Experience has shown us that increases in efficiency do not lead to decreases in use — rather, the opposite is true.

Worker productivity has skyrocketed throughout the century, yet we work more now than we ever have. Efficiency increases make commodities more valuable, which spurs their use. Effectively, the problem is that capitalism is a growth-based system, so every gain in efficiency is put back into growth, keeping total impact the same.

Second, the science of ecosystem thresholds is not yet advanced enough for us to determine the true cost of certain forms of pollution. For instance, it seems to be the case that thresholds for climate feedback loops are coming into effect at lower carbon concentrations than previously anticipated. Had a natural capitalist system been in place over the past few decades, it would have underestimated the price of carbon emissions by omission of this effect.

The burden of internalization would fall primarily on the power elite, who have gained their power almost solely through externalization of social and environmental costs. This is one of the benefits Hawken perceives in his plan, but it is also the main practical obstacle to its implementation.

The power elite by definition control the majority of social resources and make decisions about how they should be allocated. They have the power to protect themselves from all but the most effective natural capitalist revolution.

The most telling flaw in Hawken’s thinking is his implicit assumption that the industrial would be affordable if all natural costs were integrated. I suppose I have no way to prove this, but the very idea that the costs of the industry economy to workers, to fish and fungi, the feathered and the future, are outweighed by the dubious benefits of modern civilization is absurd to me.

So what is the alternative to Stern’s status quo and Hawken’s unrealistic dreaming? The best thing we as activists and community leaders can do right now is to stop the industrial economy in its tracks, primarily by monkey-wrenching the fossil fuel production and distribution network.

The stakes are far too high for us to approach climate change without a winning strategy. I don’t know if my vision is plausible, but I don’t think any other strategy is realistic.