Joining the dots of the climate crisis with Matthew Slater
Community currency engineer Matthew Slater shares his latest thoughts, joining the dots on the current climate crisis and what the near future may hold for human civilisation.
I suspected for a long time that our civilisation wasn’t viable. When the banks crashed in 2008 I paid attention to a lot of apocalyptic reporting that said we came this close to economic Armageddon – whatever that meant. As I better understood how capitalism is a stupid dogma preached increasingly only by self-serving, vain sociopaths, how it requires exponential consumption of resources, and how it has failed to respond to increasingly shrill science-based warnings. I came to expect the ultimate financial collapse at any moment, or at least in my lifetime.
I was alarmed in early April 2018 when the polar vortex broke and Europe froze, but Jem Bendell’s paper, Deep Adaptation: A map for navigating the climate tragedy didn’t alarm me too much. His favoured theory was a multi-breadbasket failure (MBBF) within 5-10 years; the melting of sea ice at the north pole would disrupt the weather so much that that grain harvests in Russia, USA and Canada would all fail, and that this would probably lead to societal collapse. Fair enough, I said.
Jem’s instincts can be uncanny. Last week I heard the news that the polar vortex has shifted over from the less cold north polar ocean to Greenland, where more ice remains, and this has meant near incessant rain for grain farmers in USA. By the end of the planting season, only 60% of the fields had been planted, and much of what was planted had drowned. This plus drought in Australia and a long Russian winter means that we are facing MBBF this year.
Suddenly I’m not so sanguine. My last ten years work on complementary currencies has been an expression of optimism I didn’t feel, that it was possible for people to self organise and run society differently. I felt even if there was the smallest chance of it being meaningful, in the face of such suffering, working to change the system was meaningful. Now without time to change the system, it’s hard to find purpose.
We’ve been sunning ourselves on the beach until the tide went out waaaay too far, and now we see the froth of the tsunami on the horizon. It’s too late to install the early warning system, too late to reinforce our houses, now we’ve only got time to run and to hope. It’s time for me to admit that the system I was working to change for the better will be destroyed and all my work will be dashed on the rocks. It’s too late to build a decentralised energy grid; too late to redesign finance; too late to build a better food system; too late to restore our national manufacturing base; too late to restore our soils, agriculture; too late for carbon capture technologies; too late to dismantle the fossil fuel leviathan; too late for every hope I clung to; from last week to this, I don’t know who I am any more.
Readers who knew me post-2008 may liken my anxiety then to my present anxiety. In both cases I’m right about the mechanism, and the timing is unknowable.
Climate science is far from exact, but when it starts playing out we’d be foolish to say it was wrong. But there’s a leap from “crops will fail” to “society will collapse” which is another field entirely. A sensible society could still take steps (that’s what Deep Adaptation is about) not so much to reduce carbon emissions but to ensure that resources are shared. But our society is very far from sensible, or even aware of what is coming. A real but manageable hunger crisis, perhaps comparable to the special period in Cuba, will be compounded by shock, blame, #ClimateGrief, and opportunist elites profiting from pain.
So this winter the global grain reserves will be eaten and, as in 2011, the poorer countries will probably experience political unrest fuelled by high food prices. Since the north pole is past its tipping point, next year will almost certainly be worse than this, so about 18 months from now, a LOT of people will be freaking out. More than ever before, the food we eat will be taken directly out of the mouths of the starving.
Some people are predicting human extinction, but that seems a rather abstract loss to me. My chest is heavy and my gaze constantly drifts because I’m grieving the failure of our wondrous civilisation, contemplating the expansion of needless suffering, and turning to face a difficult future.
It is easy to be fearful of the future which is unknown by definition. But in this case we know a lot – we just don’t spend much time joining the dots. Perhaps I’ll outline my thoughts another time – if it’s not too late!
Reproduced with permission from Matthew’s original article available here.
About the author
Matthew Slater develops software for complementary currencies. He co-founded Community Forge and co-authored the Money & Society MOOC, a free online course. He also co-drafted the Credit Commons white paper, a proposal for a global solidarity economy money system, based on mutual credit principles.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1annbeirneanimalwhisperert June 25th, 2019
I do not share your depressing thought process, despite the sheeple there are many people who are already creating new communities with sharing in mind, myself, husband and many friends are planning to go completely off grid and learn from the old days how to live with less, repair and recycle grow our own food and build our own shelters, we are not sure what sort of shelter we want but we are not going to wait for the other shoe to drop before we do anything, far more is going on that would be reported in the newspapers and other media. It has been obvious for many years that governments through out the globe have no intention of allowing our earth to recover so its about time people got of thier backsides and started doing more about it, after all from little acorns great oaks grow although an oak is not a good example really as the are slow growing and we need a pine tree plan as they are fast growing.
We really don’t need miseries like you making people more grief stricken and depressed and dampening any get up and go they may have had, we humans have always succeeded and moved forward in more difficult times than this and have always come through yes slightly battered but stronger than before.
Please don’t write any more posts like this if you haven’t got anything good to say don’t say anything at all please!
2Dave Darby June 25th, 2019
This is a really difficult one – a conflict between heart and head. My heart says keep trying to build alternatives, because everything will be (sort of) ‘alright’. But what does ‘alright’ mean? This is where my head comes in, and I look at peer-reviewed studies into climate change and biodiversity loss – like this one – https://www.pnas.org/content/114/30/E6089. Triple peer-reviewed, from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the US – this is the best we can do when it comes to understanding our ecological predicament. And what do they say? That we’re headed for ‘biological annihilation’. Just think for a moment about what that might mean in reality, for human civilisation, for the lives of individuals. There are many more studies like this one – coming to the same sort of conclusions. Insects (pollinators and the base of the food chain) are in steep decline (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/20/insectageddon-farming-catastrophe-climate-breakdown-insect-populations). See the Deep Adaptation paper linked to in the article too, for more info, and possible responses.
The important thing is that nothing is in place to stop climate change and biodiversity loss, and most people don’t undersand the implications of that. Lifestyle change is not going to be enough by a long, long way – firstly because only a small percentage of people will do it; secondly, because most people I talk to who are concerned about what’s happening and have made some changes in the way they live, still fly around the world on holiday – it’s largely superficial; and thirdly, we still have a global economy that’s primed to grow forever.
Lifestyle change is still important – it’s what Lowimpact.org is all about, but alone, it won’t even scratch the surface of what’s needed. This is why we want to make the connection between lifestyle change and system change. As long as Radio 4 et al keep promoting constant economic growth, and as long as we keep ripping fossil fuels from the ground and burning them, the current ecological collapse that we’re in will continue. And I can’t see any end to the quest for growth and I think that all fossil fuels are going to be burnt.
So it’s not going to be ‘alright’, by any stretch of the imagination, and I think that Matthew’s right to highlight food shortages – that’s what will hit people hardest. Of course there are plenty of people around the world who already have food shortages, but they’re in a minority for now – and a powerless minority at that.
We’re already in a phase of steep ecological decline. But what is the Earth going to look like, when biodiversity loss and climate change have had their way with us? No-one knows that – like Venus? Will there be humans, mammals, vertebrates? If there are humans, what will society look like? Do we really believe that a combination of human ingenuity and new technology will allow Western civilisation to continue? Isn’t that what got us into this mess in the first place? I don’t believe that there’s any chance of that, and so what are we looking at? The Middle Ages? The Stone Age? But with a much more polluted planet, without the easily-available resources we had the first time round, with much higher temperatures, with much less soil, with far fewer species of plants and animals (and possibly with an irreversibly damaged human sperm count – https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/07/170726110954.htm).
I’m not saying let’s give up, I’m saying:
1. Let’s realise that lifestyle change will solve nothing without system change.
2. Let’s realise and spread the word that the quest for perpetual economic growth is suicidal.
3. Let’s investgate real system-changing ideas, and give them a go.
On that third point, Matthew is the author of the Credit Commons white paper – http://www.creditcommons.net/. If as many people as possible could read and understand it, we might start to move towards building a replacement for the wealth-concentrating and ecologically-damaging money system that we have. Nothing meaningful can happen as long as our current finance system maintains its dominant position.
3weavingtheseisles June 25th, 2019
Excellent Dave, as usual I for one am in full agreement with you. I read just yesterday that Europe was first populated by just five or six Indo-Europeans, and joined by another similarly small handful subsequently. I’m not sure where the ice ages fitted into this, but I’d like to read more about the Basque ice age refuges — were our numbers really tiny at that point? Extinction, and especially surviving widespread extinction, must be a horrific experience. However terrible our odds, surely we have to act unto the very last as if we’re going to survive — nay, thrive? Which means, yes, working tirelessly at both individual and systemic change, in, yes, food and economy above all. And anywhere consolation is sought by an old cynic (not you, Matthew) that they will die before any big collapse and thus escape the worst, this must be challenged. Not only for its egoism, but also for its inaccuracy. You, Joe Bloggs, may escape it in this lifetime, but you your lifeforce in its next carbon form will have to face it with the younger ones.
There’s no time for pessimism: believe we’re screwed, and we’re screwed.
Keep up your good wotk Matthew. More and more people are listening.
4Steve Gwynne June 25th, 2019
I agree. We must not be afraid to confront issues of death, survivability, adaptability, crisis events and entropy.
Preparations are key.
GND green growth rhetoric is just a distraction to avoid confronting the hard realities of ongoing climate change, ongoing biodiversity loss and ongoing ecological degradation.
We need a national plan of action to prepare ourselves against worst case scenarios.
This isn’t fatalism or defeatism, it is being grounded and centred in the hard realities that are yet to come.
Grief is and will be an inevitable consequence of our climate and ecologically disruptive ways. We need to embrace our grief, not avoid or suppress it.
Earth systems naturally seek balance. We need to seek balance within these great natural ecospheric shifts.
The Tao and going with the flow of these great irreversible shifts will determine our future, not the irresponsible claims of a nature defying green new deal.
We must build resilience with what we have now. The first step is sufficiency thinking and realising that we already have enough. With food security in the UK at present only at 60%. We need to mobilise national action to prevent further growth of the built environment and grey infrastructure into what remains of our ecological means of survival.
The protection of our ecological means of survival is key to our national sustainability, key to our national sufficiency and key to our national resilience.
Destroy our national ecological means of survival and national panic and crisis increases exponentially.
5Anthony Hay June 25th, 2019
Our society hasn’t collapsed yet. There are many people doing what they can to get our politicians to take it seriously, tell the truth about what’s happening and act now. For example, Extinction Rebellion. Perhaps Mathew could contribute to their efforts. No one knows how bad the future will be. It’s too early to despair.
6Dave Darby June 25th, 2019
Anthony – he’s on XR’s advisory board. But more importantly, he’s one of a growing group of people building alternatives. Have a read of his Credit Commons white paper, unless you think we can turn things around with the current banking system, in which case, don’t.
7Anthony Hay June 25th, 2019
Dave Darby – I didn’t realise he was already involved with XR. Is he giving up on that too?
The world is complex and I don’t pretend to understand it, but… I think our leaders have let us down badly over the last few years and decades. But we do live in a democracy of sorts and if enough people care enough we should be able to make our politicians change the course we are on, and this in turn may make it more likely that other governments around the world will change. I hope a Credit Commons will be part of that change.
8Amanda James June 25th, 2019
This is the 2nd time I have come across the information about crops in the US this year (1st time via my permaculture teacher). I agree with Steve that we need to work with our grief and that it should be expressed.
I think there are a lot of people at grassroots level doing a lot about biodiversity loss, land degradation and climate breakdown. At inter-governmental level the IPBES report (https://www.ipbes.net/assessment-reports/eca) was presented to representatives of 132 governments in May this year; they say direct drivers of biodiversity and ecosystem services loss are habitat change (primarily to cropland for terrestrial), climate change, over-exploitation (e.g. minerals & fish), invasive species, pollution and increased use of tech for provisioning services e.g. food. That economic growth has indirectly reinforced the drivers of biodiversity loss is clearly noted. I am hopeful for systemic change.
Don’t forget Dave that it is not just the frequent flyers (1-2 times per year), but it is also our diet – plant-based diets have the lowest environmental impact and ruminant meat is ~100 times more damaging to the environment than plant based foods (peer reviewed meta-analysis open access: https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aa6cd5).
I am very pleased to read all the articles from Lowimpact and Noncorporate; keep up the great work Dave and everyone else and thanks for this article Matthew.
9Dave Darby June 25th, 2019
Anthony – no, he’s not giving XR or Credit Commons up. He’s redoubling his efforts on the latter since we started work on the Open Credit Network – https://opencredit.network/.
I think you can still apply yourself even when things seem hopeless.
I wish I had your optimism about the state. As it is, I think that it tends to be part of the problem – chasing perpetual growth, allowing the corporate sector into government, accepting their jobs and money, listening to their lobbyists, allowing them to avoid taxes, giving them preferential treatment with govt. contracts, bailing them out when they fail, fighting wars for them, giving banks monopoly control over the money supply. I think that without state support, the corporate sector would have no ‘economies of scale’ benefits over small businesses, sole traders and co-ops. I think banks and corporations are extremely scared of the level playing field. I hope we can make them scared of the Credit Commons eventually, rather than switching the control of global finance from banks to Facebook’s Libracoin.
10Theresa June 25th, 2019
I was listening to Stephen Jenkinson in London just over a week ago. He was talking about his book ‘Come of Age’ mostly, a case for elder hood in a time of trouble. He talked of life and death, facing reality, fear, obsession with youth and imagined immortality. I thought I was being a bit morbid going to this, but frankly I came away in better spirits.
I’ll tell a story…my mother was always a smoker, menthol, the worst type of cigarette, apparently. We always said she shouldn’t smoke, especially when she was hacking her lungs up every morning…it’s just catarrh, she’d say…you’ve got to die of something. Honestly, this was her only vice, not a drinker, didn’t gorge food, modest lifestyle. When she could barely breathe, or walk the few yards from her bedroom to the bathroom, she finally went to the quack… Sorry, they said, you’ve got a big tumour on your windpipe, that’s why you can’t breathe…we can’t operate, nothing to be done but we might be able to shrink it with radiotherapy to help you breathe a bit but that’s all… Great, she said, I’ll take whatever’s on offer…she didn’t want to die, even though she knew, then she denied the truth… The end was protracted and painful, involving chemical carrots on sticks. She could have had a better last 18 months than the ones she suffered, if she had only faced up to it all, her own actions as well as their outcomes. It’s taken me many years to understand this.
This story is so close to what our civilisation is doing to itself right now, ignoring the reality, searching for the magic bullet, miracle cure, relying on the con-men telling us that one remedy or another tecnological advance will help cure it all…but we need to be putting the natural world to rights instead of curing a dead system or prolonging a different version of going on like we are.
We’ve been given the prognosis, let’s start putting right what we’ve destroyed, take responsibility for what we’ve done, and even if we’ve wiped ourselves out in the long run, let’s for goodness sake give the other life forms a chance
11Dave Darby June 26th, 2019
Just to add to my last comment – I do think there are some good people in politics – John McDonnell springs to mind. Given the opportunity, I’m sure he’d do some good things. But politicians are constrained by a system that causes capital flight if they do ‘good things’ – like support the co-operative sector, tax corporations properly, and especially, any talk of stabilising the economy.
Amanda – thank you, and we’ll have the diet conversation again at some point – we’ve just been swamped a bit with the Open Credit Network.
Steve – I agree, it’s the quest for growth (and of course, ‘green growth’ is an oxymoron) that prevents us from achieving balance; and it’s the international competition between states to attract investments that prevents any of them from embracing a stable economy.
12Anthony Hay June 26th, 2019
Theresa – that’s a sad story about your mother. Do you mean she would have had a better last few months of life if she had not spent so much time in hospital having treatments because the treatments were futile? If so, I think I disagree with the implied analogous situation regarding climate change because I think it’s too early to “face up” to the extinction of the human race.
Dave – I’m glad to hear Mathew is continuing his efforts. I must have read too much into his statement “It’s time for me to admit that the system I was working to change for the better will be destroyed and all my work will be dashed on the rocks.”
I agree the system is no good. I’m glad XR are calling for the system to change: “Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.”
I was a pessimist about climate change because I thought people would not wake up to the reality until the supermarket shelves were empty or they couldn’t sell their own homes because they were so frequently flooded, and by then the hour would be late indeed. But XR has given me some little optimism.
13Amanda James June 26th, 2019
Not exactly what I read into Theresa’s comment Anthony. My interpretation is that we want to continue on living life in the way we are used to with technology to fix everything (e.g. bio-energy with carbon capture and storage to ‘fix’ the planet or radiotherapy/chemotherapy to ‘fix’ Theresa’s Mum). These ‘solutions’ are more like closing the door after the horse has bolted rather than prophylactic measures. I think the lack of self care and self love we humans show ourselves is reflected in the way we treat each other and the rest of the planet.
Whole-heartedly agree with your last sentence Theresa.
14John Harrison June 30th, 2019
I’ve been researching this topic for a few years and I don’t believe societal collapse is likely – although possible – in the immediate future. I believe – perhaps guess is a better word – that we’ll see steadily increasing prices with malnutrition increasing in poorer countries. There’s still a lot of slack in our system to squeeze; waste before food appears in the shops and waste in the home.
Once things get tight enough to threaten disorder, rationing. I’m sure the government has contingency plans gathering dust on a shelf somewhere. So a slow slide rather than off a cliff.
The facts are simple at core – too many people. Volunteers to commit suicide seem thin on the ground.
15simon June 30th, 2019
For some time my gut reaction to any large scale ‘alternative system’ creation has been luke-warm. I suppose it comes down to a couple of things:
1- that Carl Jung quote always lodged in my head – ‘nothing has changed if the individual has not’.
2- optimism – remember in the 1970’s many learned scientists were earnestly predicting that we would be in a catastrophic global ice age by now.
3- pessimism – i’m familiar with the ‘doomers’ who have, for some time, been saying that the last chance for any real large scale societal change was back in the 1970’s. From there on in its all mitigation / postponing and ultimately lifeboat survival. They were probably right all along…
But back to Carl Jung – Activist types often seem to interpret that quote about the individual as a kind of Thatcherite ‘there is no society’ or spiritual ‘naval gazing’ etc. But I don’t think that’s the idea. To the extent that there ANY people trying to disengage from the extractive economy/ engage in ‘holding actions’ / build alternatives – its because some kind of genuine change has happened WITHIN them.
That doesn’t mean that if the CEO’s of every major multinational went on a forrest vision quest and had an epiphany tomorrow everything would suddenly change. The machine is still running at full speed and even they would not be able to suddenly ‘turn it off’. And nothing I am saying is meant to imply people shouldn’t be engaging in system change / alternatives.
But to me it seems the reverse of that is also true: people can spend vast amounts of effort trying to build alternative systems but it can be somewhat of an ‘outside-in’ or backwards way and so often result in disappointment when people don’t take up the initiative.
The common line again seems to be to blame ‘the system’ and say that when we can change the system enough more people will be receptive etc. I’m not quite so sure.
A naturalist I spoke to recently said to the effect ‘How can people possibly know how to care for the planet if we don’t even understand it’s most basic systems? How can we activate our full psychological potential if we don’t even know how to observe with our 5 senses?’
I’m also reminded if the story of a catholic nunnery that agreed to undergo psychotherapy. Within a few months half the nuns had become lesbians and the nunnery closed down. If nothing else that’s a useful reminding analogy for those who become too overly focused on ‘changing systems’ or ‘outside – in’ approaches.
Speaking for myself it was only the ‘nature contact’ aspect that lead to me ever being in a position where I could seriously be interested in topics like the extractive economy and credit commons. Before that – forget it. Information about ecological catastrophe or proposed changes to the money system was just that – yet more information to vaguely worry about in my over stressed, attention-scattered-hijacked state.
I notice on this site ‘nature’ sits humbly at the bottom of the topics with economy & shelter at the top. For me though – ‘nature’ (ie personal meaningful hands-on sensory experience of ecosystem functioning) is the ‘101 topic’. It leads into the others. Or at least that will be the focus of my efforts going forwards…how can more people (myself included) have meaningful interaction with actual living more than human ecosystems. What would a community/ culture look like where that was a more integrated part of it – rather than something a few have-a-go heroes do on bushcraft weekends here and there.
16Dave Darby July 2nd, 2019
Simon: ‘I notice on this site ‘nature’ sits humbly at the bottom of the topics with economy & shelter at the top.’ – interesting you see it that way. I put the topics in that order because the economy is the area that needs to change most, whereas nature just needs to be left alone.
I support people who focus on individual change (there’s more than one way to skin a cat, as they say), but for me, it’s about system change, because not enough people will change as individuals. There are several reasons for this: a) the vast majority of the world’s population is too poor to even think about it; b) the ‘bread and circuses’ effect – the majority of the population of overdeveloped countries are comfortable, are just not that interested; c) all the world’s major religions teach us that the right path is to let go of ego via love, spirituality, enlightenment and living in harmony with the rest of existence, but what we have is war, materialism, stupidity and imbalance; d) 1.2 billion people won’t even stop smoking. The vast majority of the world’s population is religious, and so if they won’t listen to their prophets, and they won’t stop doing things that are damaging them as individuals, then what hope is there to persuade them of the need to live in harmony with nature? I’d suggest that it’s still a worthwhile thing to do, but it won’t reach more than a few percent.
However, system change can be brought about by relatively small numbers of people, after which, the majority will take the path of least resistance. If the available institutions are sustainable, co-operative, mutually-owned and democratic, then I don’t think there will be major rebellions against those institutions. I also suggest that we already have the requisite number of people building the new economy, and that we should give them our full support.
17John Harrison July 2nd, 2019
Dave – “d) 1.2 billion people won’t even stop smoking.” Perhaps step back and think 1.2 billion people are addicted to tobacco. Sometimes you seem very judgemental about others ‘failings’ – besides, smokers die sooner which is good for the planet. So maybe you should thank them and light up!
18Dave Darby July 2nd, 2019
John – it really doesn’t matter why people do or don’t do things – just whether those things happen or not. You could also say that people are addicted to money, cars, flying, shopping etc. A smoker’s lungs don’t take addiction into consideration, and nature won’t take our foibles / obsessions / addictions into consideration as it stops providing for us. It’s nature’s judgement that we need to worry about, not mine.
But fair enough, I was too harsh on smokers, and should have focused maybe on flying or shopping etc. (not chemical addictions). The point I’m making is that relying on individuals to change without system change is futile.
19simon July 3rd, 2019
Dave: fair enough. I really like the site. What I meant by ‘nature’ is that t is not really a separate category. The economy is an ecosystem – and if economists had more of a personally understanding and connection with it they’d understand why farming bison would be basically carbon neutral and low maintenance whilst cattle farming required vast amounts of resources (ok its just a hypothetical example.)
I’m certainly not disagreeing that ‘the system’ needs to be changed either. I actually think its a ‘yin yang’ kind of thing. They need to feed into each other.
But perhaps there is room for quite a bit more thought on why ‘ not enough people will change as individuals’. I’m not entirely convinced by your reasons. I’ve heard them before. Religion is a case in point – those originally WERE systems for fostering moral development (as well as systems for social control). Secularists and humanists are convinced that THEIR new systems ie ‘sustainable, co-operative, mutually-owned and democratic’ could succeed where religion failed. History provides a less comforting testimony to that claim. Though I would agree the kind of things you outline on the site are probably the best hope we have.
You might say ‘well what hope have we got then if people will end up corrupting any system no matter how good it seems?’.. To which I say indeed – the situation is potentially stark. So maybe we had better put a bit more pressure on the question of why ‘not enough people will change as individuals’ and make absolutely sure its not just because everyone is lazy immoral and fat. Maybe there’s something we’re missing. Because ultimately i can’t get away from Jung being right
nothing has really changed unless the individual has…