“What to do, when a ship carrying a hundred passengers suddenly capsizes and there is only one lifeboat? When the lifeboat is full, those who hate life will try to load it with more people and sink the lot. Those who love and respect life will take the ship’s axe and sever the extra hands that cling to the sides.”
― Pentti Linkola
A long time ago there lived a smart man, Garrett Hardin, who noticed the human population was expanding to numbers never before seen in history. And, as a smart man, he also recognized this was going to cause us trouble. So he came up with the idea of lifeboat ethics, which became popular among green thinkers who actually think, like Pentti Linkola.
Today the relevance of the concept should be obvious. We are for our entire way of life, dependent on resources that we are consuming faster than they can regenerate themselves. We consume fossil fuels much faster than they will ever regenerate themselves. We do the same with wood, we don’t have the sort of big trees we would need to restore the Notre Dame to its original state. The trees we use today for wood are of low quality and grow rapidly.
In large parts of the world we also do it with fresh water: Aquifers are being depleted faster than they can regenerate in places like India and the Middle East, in places like the Netherlands we are polluting them with manure so that we can’t use the water without expensive filtering procedures. And equally important: In large parts of the world, we are simply destroying our soils.
These are not new discoveries, nor are these problems unprecedented in history. The Roman empire struggled with these problems too. They eroded the soils and so they were stuck constantly expanding their empire, to feed the people in its center. The fertile crescent that gave birth to civilizations of its own began suffering from these problems much earlier.
In the 70’s the Club of Rome became well known, for warning there are limits to growth. They even gave us a warning, in regards to when we could expect to run into hard limits. It looked as following:
You can even see the peak in industrial output here, which takes place around 2015 or so here in this model. For a long time, these were somewhat hypothetical concerns, discussed on blogs like mine. Most people dismissed this stuff as just another doomsday prophecy. That’s getting a little harder now, because you’re starting to run into these very same limits to growth now. Take a good look, at electricity prices in France and Germany:
Society is remarkably flexible, but if electricity prices increase fifty-fold in two years, rest assured we have a problem. To a large degree this is a consequence of our dependence on a massive country to the east, run by an autocrat who is able to play the long game. Your politicians are busy making sure they solve any problem that could stop them from being reelected four years from now, but an autocrat has the ability to make long-term plans. Mr’s Putin’s long term plan, was to gain a strange-hold over the European economy. It succeeded and we’re now dealing with the consequences.
It’s important though to note this is not the only thing that’s happening. In the Club of Rome reports, there’s a variable called pollution, it’s a rather crude attempt at modeling the simple fact that industrial activity and food production cause changes to the environment that accumulate and eventually start to interfere with food production and industrial activity.
As a simple example, consider that Europe is now suffering the worst drought in 500 years. This reduces the amount of water flowing to the rivers, which means you can dump less cooling water into the rivers without heating them up too much. This makes it difficult for France’s nuclear power plants to produce enough electricity. Germany faces the same problem with its coal plants. In other words, the problem is bigger than just being dependent on Russia. It’s also a situation of coal plants producing the sort of pollution that heats up our atmosphere, which then causes those very same coal plants to be forced to curtail their output as the rivers run dry.
Why does Europe suffer such massive droughts nowadays? Well, there’s more to it than just the obvious answer (global warming). When you abuse your soils, practicing agriculture with massive machines that cause soil compaction in the deepest layers, your soils become less capable of storing moisture that would normally be released again through evapotranspiration during dry periods. The industrial machine, is beginning to drown in its own shit.
The whole ambition of the Elon Musk type technoenthusiasts, is to find some new technology that makes you less dependent on nature, to finally escape her clutches once and for all. Either there is some new nuclear reactor design just around the corner that doesn’t leave us praying to God to blow the smoke into the ocean as with Fukushima, or if they really have a lot of serotonin in their brains, they imagine we’re just going to smash atoms together and generate all the electricity we need with our own little version of the sun, to finally fulfill that promise we received from Lewis Strauss in 1954: Energy too cheap to meter!
What really happened of course, is that we imagined ourselves independent from nature, because we stumbled upon her stored fruits, stashed away deep inside the Earth: Aquifers with which we irrigate our fields, fossilized trees stored beneath our feet that we could burn, rock phosphate in Morocco, pristine soils in Africa and the Americas, etc. We behaved like children who found dad’s credit card and thought to themselves: “Gee, now we no longer have to ask dad for anything!”
We knew we were not completely independent yet, but we saw the stolen credit card as a sort of intermediate step: We’ll buy a lot of Dogecoin with it and then we’ll never have to get along with dad again. And so I’ll ask you again: What happened to all these pie-in-the-sky sources of endless energy we were supposed to get? If nuclear was the way out of this conundrum, where is the country that played its cards right? It is a bit like cryptocurrency: Every project turns out to be a disappointment, a black hole that cost you money, but the next one will be better!
What really goes on here, is a kind of anthropocentric mental process inherent to Abrahamic religions. It’s this idea that there exists a strict boundary between humans and non-human organisms, with the latter existing solely to be exploited by human beings for our own good. And so rather than having to learn to live within the limits of a finite Earth that can not provide us with everything we want, the Earth is there for us to exploit, eventually we figure out some way to do what we wish to do on our own without the embarrassment of needing nature’s assistance and then finally we just restore nature to whatever conditions appeal to us.
We never really manage to escape this line of thinking. To suggest that there are inevitable limits to how much human greed the Earth can facilitate triggers the kind of panicky hysterical paranoia among right wing Christian types that leads them to blow up the Georgia guide stones. It’s impossible for them to imagine that this standard of living we enjoy today might genuinely be unsustainable. No, the world must be run by evil satan-worshipping pedophiles, who wish to kill most of us like vermin for no other reason than the fact that they are satan-worshipping pedophiles.
You never really escape the anthropocentrism intrinsic to our Christian culture. The Vatican seems to recognize that this is a bug in our culture, that most civilizations have some sort of personification of the Earth, but any attempt at introducing the radical notion of accepting limits to human greed leads to the same sort of hysterical paranoia among conservative Catholics as we see among other conservatives. People demand a religious mandate for them to behave like bacteria in a Petri dish. If the Pope won’t give it to them, the Pope must be evil.
The greens are quite willing to acknowledge the flaws of anthropocentric thinking. What they never seem willing to do, is to accept the implications, that it genuinely means that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Once you confront them with the fact that you can’t forever keep growing our population as we run out of the natural resources we need to feed, clothe and warm ourselves, they start sounding like the technophile cornucopians on the right.
Every once in a while I’ve tried explaining to people on the left, that the implications of global warming and the energy transition, especially since we have failed to seriously address either of these problems, means that we will face a very difficult road ahead for ourselves. In this context, it would be unwise to import vast hordes of people into Europe, from those exact countries where people have already shown themselves incapable of living within their means, where people overshot their carrying capacity through exponential population growth and were subsequently left with failed states.
And when you try explaining this to people, you’re left with tree-hugging vegetarians who suddenly sound as if they are loyal listeners to the Alex Jones show: “No, we can perfectly deal with these growing refugee streams. We’re a rich country, but poor right-wing liberal policies cause the problem!” Suddenly they are as hopelessly naive as right-wing paranoid conservatives: “We could have everything we want, if only the evil elite were not hoarding all the resources!”
The concept of lifeboat ethics, promoted half a century ago by Garrett Hardin, is lost on everyone. Your lifeboat is fragile. It can carry just a limited number of people, if you look around you, you would notice it is already succumbing under everyone’s collective weight. And yet, rather than acknowledging the nature of the crisis you are dealing with, you insist on sailing around in our little boat, looking for people to pick up from the water until you have filled it with so many people that we all drown. We will all drown, but at least nobody will get to call you racist.
And why is that? Because you fundamentally just can’t cognitively process what’s happening. You acknowledge that the crisis is real, you want a government that promises to reduce its carbon emissions. What you can’t do, is acknowledge that we’re now living in the situation we were warned about on a constant basis we would run into if we failed to heed the warnings, if we kept expanding our economies and consuming more finite resources. That’s difficult for the majority of people to cognitively process: The simple fact that you’re already living in the early days of the business as usual scenario you were warned about. Your psychological immune system prohibits you from acknowledging this.
After two centuries of constantly rising standards of living, most white people are descended from those who adjusted themselves cognitively to the concept of a constantly rising standard of living. I have this friend I took LSD with and he began yapping on about how history is just a steadily upward moving line. That’s what lies at the depth of most of your psyches, this idea that everything will just keep growing and getting better. This is why you’ve made effectively zero attempt, at anticipating the crisis that now lies ahead of us, behaving instead like bacteria in a Petri dish.
Consider the long lines at the Dutch airport, Schiphol, where more people than in any previous year are blowing their savings to fly to some sunny destination on the other side of the globe, in the middle of summer. Is this the kind of sane response you would expect, from people who have watched electricity prices skyrocket twenty-fold or more in a year? Is this a wise use of your money?
Does this sound like people who have any sort of capacity at all, to prepare themselves for existential threats? They can’t even prepare themselves for the energy bill next month, or the prices they will face in the supermarket this winter. Imagine now, a situation in which these people, with an IQ below room temperature, collectively get to vote on the future of their society. What do you think would happen?
If these people got on board of the Titanic, they would say the boat doesn’t need enough lifeboats for all of the passengers, as the boat is unsinkable and anyone proposing the boat could sink must be an elitist eugenicist. And then once the unsinkable boat hits an iceberg, they would get into the lifeboats. And then they would propose that it is racist, to leave people to drown in the water, so they would sail around, looking for more people to lift into their boat.
And then after a while, the boat would be so filled to the brim with people, that it would fill itself with water. Then it would sink and all of them would drown.