it’s later than we thought

We are reposting this text in fragments (as is our nature) in relation to the resurgent theorytwitter buzz. Read Part 1 here. All comments and discussion welcome.


Desert, by Anonymous

2. It’s Later Than We Thought

Observed climate change is faster than expected

One recurring theme in environmentalism is that the apocalypse is always imminent but forever deferred. Every generation seems to have one last chance to save the planet. Biologist Barry Commoner said back in 1970: “We are in a period of grace, we have the time — perhaps a generation — in which to save the environment from the final effects of the violence we have already done to it.” [24] Similar pronouncements can be heard today but the period of grace is probably over. Back in 1990 the editors of The Ecologist set out a general evaluation of the state of the earth in 5000 Days to Save the Planet:

Today we are told that our planet is in crisis, that we are destroying and polluting our way to a global catastrophe… We may have as little as fifteen years, perhaps as short a time as 5000 days to save the planet… One of the major concerns arising out of the Gaia theory is that we are pushing natural processes beyond their capacity to maintain an atmosphere fit for higher forms of life. Beyond a certain point, the system may flip to an entirely new state which would be extremely uncomfortable for life as we know it… once triggered, the change to the new state could occur with extreme rapidity. [25]

By 2005 the countdown envisaged in the title had reached zero and the originator of the Gaia theory, James Lovelock, was writing The Revenge of Gaiawhere he would state that he thought the living earth was probably now moving irrevocably to a hot state. Lovelock came to this conclusion primarily as a result of seeing scientific observations of climate change surpassing what most predictions said was meant to be happening. In an address to the Royal Society he stated:

The positive feedback on heating from the melting of floating Arctic and Antarctic ice alone is causing an acceleration of system driven heating whose total will soon or already be greater than that from all of the pollution CO2 that we have so far added. This suggests that implementing Kyoto or some super Kyoto is most unlikely to succeed… we have to understand that the Earth System is now in positive feedback and is moving ineluctably towards the stable hot state of past climates. [26]

Lovelock’s public advocacy of nuclear power, [27] disbelief in wind farms as a panacea and his clear statements that massive climate change is now probably inevitable has made him unpopular with many greens. He’s definitely ‘off-message’. It’s rather inconvenient, then, that he’s got such a good environmental and scientific pedigree. As a polymath in his nineties he has worked in many fields. Notably, he invented the Electron Capture Detector that made the discovery of the Ozone Hole and the writing of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring [28] possible. His initially heretical Gaia hypothesis, of a self managing living earth, is now widely accepted under the title Earth System Science. He’s long argued for wild land expansion and been sympathetic to ecological defence actions. As an avid hiker he even carried out a personal bombing campaign around the right to roam way back in the 1930s! His detractors often admire his pioneering work but say (in a somewhat ageist manner) that he has now gone a bit batty. The real problem, though, is that he has made a professional career of being beholden to no-one else’s ideology or pay-packet. As such he has the capacity to say what many in scientific and environmental institutions are thinking but are afraid to say so directly in public. Lovelock thinks that a range of factors have led to a consistent under-diagnosis of the extent of human effects on the earth. These factors include:
  • A speed and complexity of change which research/publication schedules cannot keep up with.
  • A failure to see and comprehend the living earth as a dynamic self-regulating system.
  • A lack of joined up thinking due to academic compartmentalisation.
  • Governmental pressures on the writing of IPCC synthesis reports. [29]
  • The possibly considerable masking of present heating by global dimming. [30]
It’s beyond the scope of this text to give an overall summation of Lovelock’s thinking, never mind the wider science around global heating. Part of the nature of the problem is that by the time you read this the science will have moved on considerably. If you are interested have a look at the sources I have referenced and read wider yourself. However while the details may vary the inexorable direction of much of the science seems to be that we are probably heading to a considerably hotter earth, and fast. Recent observations put us further down the road than many of us thought even a few years ago. Decades later down the road. Combined with inertia around reducing carbon emissions this makes the chances of ‘stopping’ massive climate change probably rather slight.
While NGOs are still babbling about stopping a two degrees warming, increasingly many climate scientists are discussing a four degree warming by end of the century or even as early as 2060. [31] This is by no means a fringe worry. The 2007 IPCC report predicted a rise of between 2 and 6.4°C this century. Bob Watson, its former chairman has warned that the “world should work on mitigation and adaptation strategies to ‘prepare for 4°C of warming.’” [32] This is bad enough but Lovelock goes further and cites a number of feedback mechanisms he thinks are already moving us to an even hotter state, of which the melting of sea ice mentioned above is the most well known. What could this new hot state look like? Some highlights:
  • Hot deserts spreading over much of the global south and into southern and even some of central Europe.
  • Cold deserts predominantly in the global north retracting to leave new frontier land in Siberia, Scandinavia, Canada, Greenland, Alaska and even to a certain extent in the Antarctic.
  • Mass attempts at migration from arid zones to the still habitable areas.
  • Mass human die-off coupled with accelerating species extinctions.
Lovelock puts it rather bluntly:

Humans are in a pretty difficult position and I don’t think they are clever enough to handle what’s ahead. I think they’ll survive as a species all right, but the cull during this century is going to be huge… The number remaining at the end of the century will probably be a billion or less. [33]

Of course, I don’t know this is a true picture of present and future climate change . The true complexity of the Earth System (and human social dynamics within it) is probably beyond our comprehension (definitely beyond mine) and models should not be confused with reality. My informed hunch (that’s all one has in the fool-making business of describing the future) is that the picture painted is probably a reasonable approximation. You may not think so, but I would ask that you run with me as it’s a possibility worth considering. That hunch is as much informed by an anarchist critique of capitalism as it is a reading of climate science. Looking around me, it’s a lovely bright day and the leaves of the trees are almost shining; but little in the society in which I live indicates to me that a problem of the scale and complexity of climate change is going to get fixed. Given that, I feel that the big question posed is not so much if we will reach a world somewhat resembling that outlined above but when.
Lovelock is seriously proposing that such a world (or to be more accurate, such worlds) will emerge by the end of this century, and that emergence trends will start to become obvious by mid century. It could take longer, but either way it may be advantageous to take such shifts into consideration when thinking about what we want to achieve in our lives.
Here, to be clear, we are not talking about a millennial apocalypse, though it may feel like that to some caught in its more horrible or exciting moments. Rather we are talking about massive accelerating change. James Hansen (NASA), comments:

If we wish to preserve a planet similar to that in which civilization developed and to which life adapted, Palaeolithic evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm. [34]

Chances are it won’t be. The environmental niche that civilisation (class divided agriculturally-sustained city culture) developed in is on the way out. With it will probably go many of civilisation’s citizens. And there are many, many citizens.
Ghost acres feed population overshoots
Integral to the growth of industrial capitalism has been a vast increase in human population. There are now around seven billion of us compared to around 600 million at the beginning of the 18th century. That jump has happened in 13 generations [35] and in large part it was no accident. Silvia Federici has clearly laid out that a key foundation of early capitalism was the destruction of women’s control over their own fertility: “…wombs became public territory, controlled by men and the state, and procreation was directly placed at the service of capitalist accumulation” (see box below). While it was capitalism that first enforced and then enabled this most recent mass expansion, in doing so it was/is singing an older anthem of civilisation [36] — this time, though, with mechanical amplification.
I was born in the mid 1970s when the human population was four billion; by the time I die (hopefully not before 2050) the UN estimates that the earth’s human population will be over 9 billion. [37] This estimate, though, presumes ‘business as usual’. Whether this happens or not will depend on three interdependent factors: birth control, death control and food supply.
Worldwide, despite the continued edicts of cult patriarchs such as the Pope, many are increasingly using birth control to limit family size. The continuing power struggle to enable us to do so is a key battle and one around which many anarchists — amongst others — have organised. [38] However the spread of birth control — and the fight for women’s liberation [39] more generally — will not stop the probable doubling of human population in my lifetime. With decreasing family size already a global norm in much of the world, it is the ability of industrial medicine and hygiene measures to enact death control that is now key. The human population, at least in business-as-usual projections, will continue to rise until at least 2050 as long as those alive today live their expected lifespans and have the expected number of children.
However, we do not have to wait until then to overshoot the planet’s human carrying capacity (its maximum permanently supported load) as we have probably done so already. Industrial civilisation has managed to push up food supply by both colonising ever more wild land for agriculture and developing fossil fuel reliant ‘green revolution’ [40] agro-technologies and transportation. Essentially, industrial agriculture relies on the harvesting of ghost acreage [41] (the fossilised photosynthetic production of ecosystems millions of years ago) to produce food at the present rate. This can be only temporary, for unless one is a believer in the cornucopian myth that resources are limitless, someday the fossil-fuel hunting will draw a blank. When this will happen no-one really knows, though many argue that we have already passed ‘peak oil’. Some may counter that hydrogen fuel cells, solar power, genetic engineering, nanotechnology and green goo will somehow avert a population crash. These apostles of progress more and more resemble cargo cults in their belief that technology marshalled by either the market (if capitalist) or state planning (if socialist) will provide all that is needed. In the unlikely event that they’re right, and the food supply does keep up with population growth, the highly managed nature of the provision will guarantee that the ‘freedom supply’ (for both humans and other animals) is increasingly scarce.
So the rapidly growing human population needs fossil fuels to stay alive. Most of us are eating oil and illness is largely controlled with high energy reliant technologies. Here is yet another reason I doubt the ability of activists, or states for that matter, to convince society to decarbonise. It sounds nice, but for millions, if not billions, it would mean shorter lives if humanity stopped importing from the past.
On a significantly hotter globe a major human die-off could be on the cards even if one does not go along with the ideas around peak oil. As much of the majority world becomes hotter and poorer, farmers will be unable to afford the petro-chemical based imports necessary for continued production even if fossil fuels don’t run out. Further, while industrial agriculture has temporarily increased land’s carrying capacity, in the process much ‘productive’ land has been denuded and without the application of fertilisers would now be unable to produce as much food organically as it did originally. Even Southerners ‘lucky’ enough to still have access to fossil fuel inputs will find magic potions lose their powers when soil dries, bakes and blows away. With little nutrition or medicine disease will harvest much of the hungry.
It would be nice to imagine that those countries still able to produce considerable food quantities (in part thanks to improved growing conditions — more of that later) would gift it but I wouldn’t hold your breath. A billion people on earth are hungry already. [42] Rather than the spectacular mass death of whole communities this mostly causes increased childhood mortality and decreased overall lifespan. Yet capitalism has, from the beginning, had definite ‘form’, (just ask the Irish) in allowing (and causing) millions to starve more dramatically. Mike Davis reminds us of an often forgotten example when he writes (in Late Victorian Holocausts ) of the 30–60 million people in the later part of the 19th century who starved to death, “not outside the ‘modern world system’, but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures.” [43] Similar hungers have taken their toll throughout the following century, many engineered by state socialists, those most attentive students of British Empire.
It would be hopelessly Utopian to believe that hunger could be exiled from the human condition but mostly those dying today of starvation do so whilst others in their societies keep eating. Hunger is the language of class warfare. Power has many levels and amongst much of the poorest starvation in the future is likely to be played out as gendered violence, as it is now. [44]
I will leave it to others to argue about the relative contribution of population numbers or industrial consumption patterns (as though both are not now intrinsically linked) to global heating. Today, global (and local) population growth is a barrier to any significant ‘de-carbonisation’. Tomorrow, capitalism’s present inability to out-engineer its addiction to fossil fuels will likely result in a massive population crash.
Climate change brings possibilities as well as closures
Global heating, population growth, peak oil and other environmental limits are probably not the apocalypse that will end the reign of capital and the state everywhere. The global collapse is probably no nearer than the global revolution. Nevertheless it does mean that a totalised global capitalism, enclosing all relationships within it, becomes even less likely. The Western project of cultural expansion faces its limits. As part of that, the libertarian movements which capitalism has carried on its coat tails also face the real limits to the growth of Anarchism. Yet just as the establishment of a one world of Anarchism is foreclosed so the possibilities of many new/old worlds — some anarchies — becomes widespread. Some of these possibilities will be opened up by conflict, some will be closed by conflict.
The very nature of states is to control populations, but many of the billions will not hunger quietly. Yesterday the late Victorian holocausts triggered millenarian uprisings amongst those being swept away by the spreading flood waters of the ‘world system’. Tomorrow, as the tide retracts and surplus populations are left on the (desert) sand, we seem set for yet another, if anything more brutal, century of wars and insurrections.

read more here:

Part 1 :: Part 2 :: Part 3 :: Part 4 :: Part 5 :: Part 6 :: Part 7 :: Part 8 :: Part 9 :: Part 10

2 responses to “it’s later than we thought

  1. Pingback: African Roads to Anarchy | synthetic zerø·

  2. Pingback: Civilisation Retreats, Wildness Persists | synthetic zerø·

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s