In the Western world, we live a lifestyle that’s impossible to sustain in the long term. The lifestyle we lead is one of enormous resource consumption, made possible by our access to fossil fuels. Consider that when you take a round trip flight from Germany to the Caribbean, you emit as much carbon dioxide during your flight as eighty average Tanzanians would during an entire year. To fly is still an unusual phenomenon in our day and age. It’s estimated that in an average year, just 3% of the human population sees the inside of a plane.
To have a two thirds chance of keeping the global temperature rise beneath two degree Celsius by 2100, it’s estimated that 800 gigaton of CO2 can be emitted. If you assume we’re dealing with 2 ton of CO2 for a round-trip flight between London and New York, we’re left with 400 billion round-trip flights. That’s 5 billion round-trip flights per year over a period of eighty years. In other words, if the whole world took on a habit we in the West now take for granted, it would be enough for us to blow through our carbon budget, even if we stopped every other carbon emitting activity we’re engaged in overnight.
Large parts of the world are rapidly taking over our way of life. The total kilometers flown in 2017 were 8% higher than the previous year, when they were 7.8% higher than the year before. The biggest increase was seen in India, where kilometers grew by 17.9% for January 2018 compared to the previous year. Even in Europe however, we still see tremendous growth. In Europe, kilometers flown went up by 6.4%. The number of passengers in 2018 was 8.5% higher than in 2017. This is the highest rate of growth in air travel in Europe since 2004. In other words, even within Europe, we haven’t come anywhere close yet to saturation of demand. If Europe can’t restrain growth in air travel, what chance does the rest of the world have to restrain this epidemic?
This problem applies to other aspects of economic development too. The average American ate 100.8 kilogram of meat in 2018, a new record high. The average Indian, ate 4.4 kilogram of meat. In other words, to reach the standard of living of an American, an Indian would have to increase his meat consumption twenty fold. Nigeria would be looking at a tenfold increase, but with the projected quadrupling of the Nigerian population by 2100, total consumption would grow forty-fold. It’s clear that these type of figures simply can’t be achieved. The world simply can’t muster the resources that would be needed to satiate such demand.
Of course this isn’t a world-shattering discovery. Tim Jackson pointed out years ago how grams of CO2 released per dollar of GDP will have to drop by more than 98% by 2050, if the whole world wants to have the European standard of living of 2007. Recently it was pointed out the Earth has less than a 5% chance of keeping the global temperature rise beneath two degree Celsius.
This matters a lot, because a two degree temperature rise is a recipe for catastrophe. To preserve more than 10% of the world’s coral reefs, the global temperature rise needs to be kept beneath 1.5 degree Celsius. Estimates of the number of people who directly depend on coral reefs for nutrition vary, but generally amount to hundreds of millions of people. Large parts of the Middle East and North Africa will see temperature increases so severe during this century, that places now home to millions of people will be too hot to survive in during parts of the year. This is expected to lead to a giant exodus of people.
You might expect a black swan to emerge, a kind of event that leads to a drastic diversion from the scenario we’re currently on. Unfortunately, all the negative emissions technologies that have been reviewed have serious shortcomings that limit their usefulness. The conclusion arrived at after reviewing all the various technologies that have been suggested is that all of these can at most play a very limited role in addressing our situation.
We might expect that gains in efficiency in resource usage may solve our crisis for us, but this won’t prove sufficient either. This was first understood by Jevons and led to the term Jevons paradox. When more efficient machines emerged that needed less coal, coal consumption simply went up. Suddenly, coal could now be used for purposes that were previously impossible. Jevons paradox can be avoided when demand of a good is already saturated, but this tends to be rare. Notice for example, that demand for air travel is far from saturated. The industry’s attempt to improve its energy efficiency will thus merely makes our problem worse, as burning less fuel allows airlines to charge lower prices, making air travel affordable to more people.
To make a long story short: The party is coming to an end. As things presently stand, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that it’s very difficult to come up with a plausible scenario for our future that ends in anything other than a global catastrophe. At this point, it’s not realistic anymore, to expect a solution. Many people who study this problem for a living already know this, which is why there is an apparent epidemic in mental health issues among climatologists. As humans, we’re not psychologically well prepared for a catastrophe of this proportion, which happens to be the reason the problem could ever end up this severe to begin with.
This is not a problem that’s likely to unfold overnight. Rather, if you’re young today this is something that’s going to characterize our lives. In the developed world it means seeing refugee crises, in the developing world it means seeing catastrophic civil wars and famines. As the problem grows worse, it will begin to affect our standard of living. Eventually, a point of no return is reached, where the environment around us begins to change in a manner that will make global warming progressively worse, regardless of our own actions at that point. We won’t notice this at first, as our own actions will still be the dominant driving force for the foreseeable future, but over time this leaves us in a very difficult situation. As our standard of living declines in the years ahead, the resources available to us to address long-term threats decline. Because the problem isn’t being solved today, it won’t be solved in the future either.
As individuals, we don’t have the ability to genuinely influence this global process. It’s unrealistic for us to assume otherwise. Our sense of ethics developed in the context of small groups of individuals, with limited knowledge of how the various processes in our environment unfold. When we identified problems, these problems tended to be under our own control and we developed ethics and ways of thinking that allowed us to cope with these issues. Today we’re faced with a problem that’s caused by us, despite the fact that we have no genuine influence on it as individuals. It’s difficult for us to rhyme this with our sense of ethics in a proper manner.
The catastrophic change of our climate won’t stop at two degree Celsius. Rather, the current pledges by governments, without the participation of the United States, would suggest a temperature increase of 3.6 degree Celsius. This is a recipe for billions of deaths. It’s not communicated in this manner in the media to us, but the reality we’re faced with is that a world in which temperatures rise by 3.6 degree Celsius is not a world that’s going to be very habitable. Consider, what some of the world’s most prominent climatologists have to say:
Keynote speaker Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute and climate advisor to the German Chancellor and to the EU, has previously said, in a 4 degree warmer world, the population ” … carrying capacity estimates [are] below one billion people.”
Similarly, Professor Kevin Anderson, the director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change in the UK, was quoted in The Scotsman newspaper, ahead of the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, saying the consequences of a 4 degree world were ”terrifying”.
”For humanity, it’s a matter of life or death … we will not make all human beings extinct, as a few people with the right sort of resources may put themselves in the right parts of the world and survive. But I think it’s extremely unlikely that we wouldn’t have mass death at 4[degrees]C. If you have got a population of nine billion by 2050, and you hit 4, 5 or 6[degrees]C, you might have half a billion people surviving.”
This is the reality we’re faced with, as told to you by some of the world’s most reputable climatologists. The temperature increase ahead of us, will bring about a world that’s barely habitable to human beings and certainly can’t sustain the kind of civilization we’re familiar with. If you were expecting flying cars, you’re in for a disappointment. Instead, you can expect political instability, food riots, famines, crippling natural disasters, lethal heat waves, enormous forest fires, bloody civil wars and a return to the kind of atrocities we liked to believe the world would never see again.
It’s hard for us to believe in a looming catastrophe, if all we have to go by are scientific models and observations. However, we now live in an era where the impact can be directly seen. The canary in the coal mine, is the Great Barrier Reef. It’s easy to go back years and read all the research that suggested the Great Barrief Reef is very sensitive to temperature increases and the global warming ahead of us would be sufficient to bring about the demise of the reef. Today this is no longer a warning, this has become reality. Since 2016, half of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef has perished. The ecosystem we remember is never coming back, it has now been permanently lost.
This tragedy did not come unexpectedly. In 1990, the United Nations Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases suggested a temperature rise above 1 degree Celsius, we lead to “rapid, unpredictable and non-linear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage“. For us today this is no longer a threat ahead of us, it is simply a reality we will have to live with. The big problem with an issue like this is that it won’t happen overnight and that it won’t affect the whole world simultaneously. As an example, although Ethiopia might see a famine ten years from now that leads to millions of deaths, a man living in Denmark might notice none of the problems that affect the rest of the world and live a normal life for the next twenty years, with at most a few economic hiccups.
How do you deal with this reality? There is no simple answer to this question. Do you simply live your life, as if you’re none the wiser? Do you work on a solution, ignoring the voices that state it’s utterly hopeless by now? As Roy Scranton argued in 2013, we now have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization. The future we set up for ourselves is one in which we have no place. The only solution ahead of us now is to work on making the transition itself bearable.
The closest thing we have in this situation to a solution, is to reevaluate our ethical approach to the world. Western nations struggle to maintain humane conditions for their own vulnerable citizens. It’s not possible to deliver humane conditions to the millions of people who are living in third world countries today, who would like to flee to our nations. Our aid budgets for refugees should deal with the reality that the number of refugees is going to increase dramatically in the year ahead. Regardless of the steps we take today, a point will arrive within the next few years, when the refugee streams will become so enormous that we stand no genuine chance of delivering aid to all of the people who arrive on our doorsteps to ask for it.
Another reality we need to accept is that it tends to be a recipe for misery to set unrealistically ambitious goals in your life that you have no genuine chance of attaining. On a collective basis, this is no problem. Politicians are faced with so many goals, that all of them are approached in a half-assed manner. You inevitably need to ask for more than you expect to get.
On an individual basis, it does lead to problems. People can look around them and witness the dissolution of their civilization, but they struggle to genuinely come to terms with the idea that this may have practical consequences for them too. The most common response we tend to see is for people to “prepare”. The world around them starts to die, but they and theirs will make it through, because they are “prepared”. but this is where they encounter the first problem: No man is an island.
It’s easy, -if you have the savings, physical health and strength of will- to buy a plot of land and to grow your own food. It’s much harder, to form a community from scratch. If you can’t do such a thing, then the back to the land ambition eventually ends when you make a nasty fall and realize you no longer have the right age for agricultural labor.
What we notice is that many rural villages struggle to sustain themselves, for the same reason it’s difficult to set up an off-grid homestead: It’s extremely difficult to maintain the necessary social context. You might find a spouse who shares your ambition and raise children together, but do you trust your children will feel the same way you do? Do you want the children to go to college? How do you reconcile that with the kind of rural community you wish to sustain?
Can your children find partners who share your back to the land ambition? How many eligible young women are looking forward to moving in with their spouse and his parents, to settle on towing the land, in preparation of the slow-motion environmental catastrophe their father-in-law anticipates? Take it from me, you’re doing quite well for yourself if you can find a girlfriend who doesn’t renege on her promise to go WWOOFing with you.
The more likely scenario you’re dealing with is rather simple and staring you in the face: If the community you live in falls apart, you’re dying with it. You might be like Ishi, living on by yourself for a few years after your tribe was exterminated, but that’s a fate worse than death, I wouldn’t wish it upon you.
If I had to offer something that could be interpreted as advice, I would suggest it’s recommendable to enjoin your fate to that of the rest of life. The idea that what affects someone else doesn’t have to affect us is how we ended up in the miserable situation we face today. In addition, we underestimate how much we can achieve when we cooperate.
Europe today is a continent with more forests than the past few centuries, where wild beavers and wolves stalk the countryside. This happened, not because we treated society like a failed project we should flee from, but because we learned through technology to reduce our fertility and feed ourselves with a fraction of the photosynthetic capacity we required in the past.
I have no desire to flee off to a rural homestead, in preparation of the catastrophes ahead of us. My desire is to figure out how much can be salvaged. Although the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against us, there are things that haven’t been attempted, opportunities that have gone unexplored. My hope is to meet people who share my ambition and vision. And if we fail, then I’ll go down together with the sinking ship.