Friday, 6 May 2011

Doom and gloom Part II; or, why it's a pity we aren't all Chinese

(Continued from previous post)

One of the biggest problems is the basic core dynamic of our civilisation.  Some people are inclined to blame democracy,  but the problem goes much deeper than that.  Even if every country in the world today were a dictatorship,  they would still be struggling against one another for the biggest possible piece of the pie.  Because the core dynamic of this civilisation is competition:  competition between individuals,  between groups,  between nations,  all striving continuously for as much prosperity and/or power as possible;  all intent on bolstering and protecting their own position,  at the expense of others if necessary.  This dynamic has powered our civilisation ever since it first emerged in the cut-throat world of the dying Roman Empire,  and it is what has taken it to the height and breadth we see today.  It is also what makes our civilisation quite unable to deal with the challenges it now faces.

Contrast this with Chinese civilisation,  in which one central authority commanded near-total obedience across more or less the entire civilisation.  If it had been China's civilisation and not Europe's which had spread to encompass the entire world,  the challenges of global warming and an unsustainable economic system would surely be easier to deal with:  a competent emperor,  advised by even more competent mandarins,  would issue a series of decrees to remedy the situation,  and those decrees would be by and large obeyed,  even if the result was increased hardship for most.  Even today,  China preserves much of this culture;  the people of China still demonstrate a willing obedience to and faith in their government which must surely be the envy of rulers everywhere else.  If the Chinese government seriously wanted to reduce its country's greenhouse emissions,  I dare say it could do so very effectively and with relatively little difficulty.  Unfortunately,  China is now well and truly part of our global civilisation and is consequently just another part of the problem,  not the solution.  China is not likely to try to reduce its emissions with anything like the speed or effectiveness of which it is capable,  because that would put it at a disastrous disadvantage against the rest of the world.

Of course,  if Chinese civilisation had been the one to swallow up the rest of the world,  we wouldn't be in this situation anyway,  because we would probably never have reached the stage of industrialisation...  but that's another story.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

You know, the end really does seem to be somewhat nigh

An American religious wacko has recently predicted that the world will end on 21 May at about 6 pm.  He's wrong,  of course.  It will not be nearly so sudden.  In fact,  there's every sign that the ending of  "our world"  began some time ago and will continue for at least several decades to come.

The problem with humans is that we aren't very good at focusing our attention on events that take more than about a week to happen.  Hell,  we've even stopped thinking about Fukushima,  even though nothing much there has changed from the time when our media was full of daily updates on it.  And this is one reason why our world is ending,  and why we aren't going to be capable of stopping it:  we just aren't very good at being alarmed by disasters that take decades to unfold.  We find it far too easy to delude ourselves that it isn't really happening.  And that's even easier when the disaster in question is highly amorphous and its causes manifold and complex.  It becomes impossible to generate any sense of urgency,  at least not on the level of society as a whole.

Back in 1993,  I was watching some documentary on TV about ancient civilisations and what happened to them,  and I started wondering why we should bother studying such civilisations in such detail.  Why is this useful to us?  And I decided that the most useful aspect of it is learning about why such civilisations collapsed,  because that might help us avoid the collapse of our own.  Excepting those that were conquered by others,  ancient civilisations seem to have collapsed because of what one might call a fatal flaw:  some essential aspect of their structure which became incompatible with the civilisation's survival.  In other words,  the civilisation in question could not have survived without removing some element of itself without which it could not exist anyway,  or which it was otherwise simply incapable of removing.  Therefore collapse was inevitable.

So I got to wondering:  what is our civilisation's fatal flaw?  Greenhouse gas emissions seemed the most obvious one,  but I was also thinking about land degradation,  pollution,  and the exhaustion of non-renewable resources.  Nearly eighteen years later,  it seems even more likely that these  (interrelated)  factors are indeed precisely those that will bring about the decline and fall of our civilisation.

Not only that,  it's increasingly clear that this decline and fall is already underway.  We're already experiencing more natural disasters than we used to,  apparently because of global warming.  And we've already reached  "peak oil".  The response of our civilisation to the latter has been primarily to turn to alternative fossil fuel sources,  such as shale oil.  This is typical:  as one resource dries up,  we exploit another,  equally unsustainable resource until that too is gone,  and so on.  This even extends to nominally renewable resources like plants and animals:  we are already driving some fish species extinct through overfishing,  for example.  When things get really bad,  there's every likelihood that we will eventually cut down every last tree.

One of the key problems is that as things get worse,  people become more selfish,  more  "grabby",  less concerned about conserving what little resources there are left,  and thereby accelerating the decline.  It may just be the crankiness of old age,  but I'm inclined to think people are already showing signs of increased selfishness today.  People want their governments to fix the climate change problem,  but they refuse to contemplate tax increases to do it;  they also refuse to accept nuclear power stations in their neighbourhoods,  high-voltage power lines near their houses,  and protest vigorously against wind farms ruining their landscapes.

Be that as it may,  it's certainly true that when our economy is in recession,  governments go slow on anti-climate-change measures.  As George Monbiot argued in a recent column,  it seems that we need to feel fairly prosperous and secure before we can voluntarily act to reduce our consumption or accept even quite small restrictions in our personal budgets.  And even if stable,  long-term prosperity were to return to the world,  the sort of action necessary to combat climate change and make our civilisation sustainable would ultimately impair that prosperity;  it would inevitably mean giving up our current standard of living.  Which is why I am convinced that this is indeed our fatal flaw:  we need stable,  comfortable prosperity to take any significant action at all,  but the action we need to take involves the removal of that very prosperity and comfort.

This is why our governments have so far failed to do what is necessary,  and it is why they will continue to fail in the future as well.  Indeed,  as the problems get worse,  it's quite likely that we will take even less action to redress the fundamental causes than we doing at the moment,  because we will be too busy trying to preserve our standard of living and desperately secure as big a share as possible of the planet's dwindling resources.

So,  when pondering the possible collapse of our civilisation,  the only question that really remains is how much longer it's going to take.  It's certainly not going to be over in an instant on the evening of 21 May.  But one day we may well wish that it was.