Wealth and power is the single greatest force that will lead to our species annihilation. It seems there is little historical antidote to the pathology of this class power. When a plutocracy grows into a rapacious system of exploitation, environmental destruction closely follows. Almost every past civilization has fallen in this manner, and we are not exempt.
Recent studies reveal Arctic sea ice – the so-called canary of climate change – has already collapsed to one fifth of its 1980 level, exposing our collective inability to resist the exploits of capitalism in any meaningful way. Glaciers recede, forests burn, phytoplankton vanish, temperatures soar. And while the empirical reality around us calls for a radical response, civilization polluted more greenhouse emissions in 2012 than any other year in recorded history.
This means that a 2-degree increase in global temperatures is now inevitable. All Arctic sea ice will have completely vanished within the decade. The permafrost, which houses some 50 trillion tons of methane, will set in motion a planetary warming cycle that would render any government’s attempt to rain in pollution (if such an attempt were to take place) futile. This is the cold, dark and ominous situation we now face. Chomsky points out that the real debate on global warming is not between the skeptics and “believers” but between those scientists who believe the human species will continue and those who do not.
Now juxtapose this with the recent electoral debates, Congressional and Parliamentary hearings, media coverage, the Dow Jones’ record shattering averages, and global economic forums that are planning new methods to ramp up consumption and increase economic growth. Delusion and stupidity are the only accurate words to describe the unfolding satire. We naively believe that the coming crisis of climate change will be manageable, that adaptation will follow any disruptions, and our Western way of life will remain largely unmolested.
What gives us such confidence?
The domestication of plants and animals, the practice that would lead to exponential population growth and a global civilization, did not take root before the end of the last ice age. With a moments reflection this seems puzzling: ice didn’t affect lower latitudes, game were not plentiful in all areas, and our species were just as biologically equipped to understand where plants come from. Yet the agricultural or “neolithic” revolution developed discretely on different continents simultaneously. The 10,000-year run of domesticated agriculture started in complete isolation. The probable answer to this riddle should be unsettling when put in the context of anthropogenic climate change and our blind faith in the industrial food system.
Simply put: the climate predating the ‘invention’ of agriculture was just too unstable … too unpredictable. Ice core samples show a drastic oscillation of temperature, which, climatologists assume, undermined any attempt to develop stable farming methods. Reversal of ocean currents and the destabilization of the permafrost was probably the main impetus, although such speculation is merely educated guesswork.
The Gulf Stream has already started to slow down. Crops yields have begun to shrink. Record storms ravage infrastructure. Yet we behave as if the trajectory of global civilization points to a continuity of lifestyle and political stability. The cheap manufactured goods are still flowing in quantity from China, the corporate airwaves report meaningless entertainment as if there is little else to cover, and politicians and universities continue to talk in the language of free markets and economic recovery. Like the late Mayan civilization whose solution to their environmental woes was to increase production, honor the gods with grandor pyramids and monuments, and rapaciously expropriate the masses with an ever increasing workload that yielded diminishing returns, we believe the Western way of life will keep our ferocious appetites fulfilled if we place just a little more faith in the market and let our elected governments slash social spending without protest. How long can they sustain this cheap method of subversion — a charade of organization and control — before the iron fist of the security state is employed on a large scale?
There is still hope – diminished and intangible as it may be. Speaking from the generation who fueled the Occupy movement, I think there is a general awareness and passion among my age group that will not be browbeaten into submission by the demands of Homeland Security or any other protective apparatus. We understand the political rigidity of industrial nations to address the mounting environmental and social issues, and this is why we are sick and tired of voting. We protest, but seldom pay attention to electoral or Parliamentary politics. Keystone XL, Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, and Kinder Morgan Transmountain Pipeline will not proceed without a potent resistance, one charged by a young group of committed rebels who will risk anything, including jail time, to save our withering ecosystem.
But if successful, this will merely buy some precious time. The one hopeful attribute of all the economic austerity, from the United States to Portugal, is that the widening chasm between the growing oligarchy and shrinking underclass will cause an economic collapse just before we plunge over the environmental point of no return and descend into a planetary death spiral. The relationship between an exploitative socioeconomic system and the overbearing impact on the natural world is an intimate one, and if circumstances and conditions permit, a social revolution will tear down the edifice of global capitalism and usher in a new age of simplicity and contraction before it is too late.
The suffering endured by an extreme economic disintegration will never be comparable to a collapse of planetary life-support systems. If the planet loses its patients, human civilization will become extinct. It is estimated that only one billion people could sustain themselves without the power of industrial equipment facilitated by global trade (and even that statement presupposes adequate growing conditions).
There are some examples of political crises that have brought down societies in the past. Ancient China, with its fortunate excess of topsoil, is a good example. An aristocratic ruling class that works to concentrate wealth upwards, unable or unwilling to address the discontents of a public, will always succumb to reactionary or revolutionary forces. The only remaining question is how pronounced the impact on natural systems will become and whether a continuation of that society is still viable. In the example of the Mayan society in the late Classical period, social change came too late. Easter Island’s entrenched ideologies, or “ideological pathologies,” stunted revolt until the last tree was cut (when the outside world made first contact, most of the greatest “moai” lay intentionally destroyed as if later generations took revenge on their short-sighted ancestors). Roman rebellions were repressed, including major slave rebellions, until hyperinflation and civil war forced the abandonment of its capital.
These small examples, and many more, were all tied to a type of ‘ecological suicide,’ leading to internal collapse and a disintegration of civil society. However, past meltdowns were limited to local ecologies. Some anthropologists have pointed out that the 21st century is quite possibly the final chapter of the experiment of civilization, because the biosphere now bears the brunt of our pollution and waste. No corner of the planet is exempt, no remote island is safe.
So our hope may lay in the very corporate greed that brought us to this point of destruction. Unlike in the past, concentrated power has never been greater. Since the 2008 financial collapse, corporate profits have risen by over 20 percent annually, breaking consecutive records. Meanwhile, the rest of the economy — the real economy — stagnates. In the rare example a corporation hires, they hire overseas. Technological capabilities increase productivity with a diminishing need for a labor force. What little social programs exist are starting to be slashed to sustain imperial ventures and a growing Federal Reserve debt. These trends forecast a radical change in the direction of one of two historic possibilities: genuine revolution or overt totalitarianism (revolution or counter revolution). Although genuine revolution has to occur before the ecological point of no return, a dwindling possibility as the years move by.
Earth has spoken. The science has been understood for decades. Yet the mass of the bewildered herd remains grounded within the framework of commercialism. This means that for those of us who care about principles of justice, the struggle for emancipation, and the maintenance of our species and the biosphere in general, only a new tactic will have any effect upon the wider culture. Rooted in an accurate systems analysis, that does not seek redress through established institutions of power, and whose proponents are willing to be jailed, physically wounded, or even killed, this new movement of radicalism will have the chance of showcasing an alternative, albeit conceptual, to the economic and political status quo.
Like the passion that fueled Occupy, the movement must provide the raw emotional commitment to these seismic issues. And when the cameras turn our way and reveal a selfless group of individuals, non-violently fighting with slogans that resonate with the broader culture, a new avenue of activism will be substantiated. Only then, together with increased climate disruptions, a bloated oligarchy, and an even greater hardship for the masses, will this visible and tangible alternative present itself.
This is certainly not the time to despair.
Tristan A. Shaw is a 21 year-old student who is a prolific reader and writer on issues concerning the state of governance in North America. He resides in British Columbia, Canada, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.