This is a question for anyone working in the field of environmental sustainability. What’s actually happening to the biosphere, how bad is it, and should we tell people or keep it quiet?
First of all, what’s happening to the biosphere, and who says so?
In May this year, an article appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. It’s entitled: Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines. Notice those first two words. This is an establishment, sober, respected and respectable organisation, founded in 1836, whose output is very peer-reviewed (see below). The researchers involved have clearly chosen those two words carefully to grab attention, and it was published by the august Academy.
I don’t know about you, but ‘biological annihilation’ sounds like something that humans might not survive – or at least that we’re not guaranteed to survive. I’m not particularly risk averse, but if there’s a chance that humans might become extinct, surely that’s something that should be on every news programme and on the front/home page of every newspaper. Even if we can survive a mass extinction event, why would we want to test it?
There are some people who don’t think it’s particularly important if humans become extinct, or even welcome it, because, well, we’ll have deserved it, and it will allow biodiversity to recover. I can see where they’re coming from, but I don’t agree with them because a) humans represent the universe becoming aware of itself – at least in this corner of it. What a shame to snuff out that growing awareness because of a bad system, rather than bad people; and b) if and when ecological collapse comes, it will result in a more-or-less desert planet, without pollinators, without soil decomposers, probably toxic and possibly radioactive (the number of countries with nuclear warheads has doubled since the nuclear non-proliferation treaty was signed, and what do you think the chances are that they won’t be used in a world of dwindling resources and desperate people?). Now imagine yourself or the people you love in that hellish scenario. A quick death would be the merciful option for members of the generation alive if and when it happens.
So, are they right, and how would we know?
We know all about fake news nowadays – so is this fake? Let’s look at their review process. When a paper is submitted, it’s handed over to an editorial board member for its first review. Here’s a list of their editorial board members. If the editorial board member judges that the quality of the paper is high enough, it’s passed on to a National Academy of Sciences member editor – a professional scientist and researcher in the field associated with the paper. The member editor will look at the paper in more detail, and again, if the quality of the methodology, data analysis and conclusions are high enough, it’s passed on to an independent peer reviewer, who is a recognised expert in the field of study.
This is a three-tier review by scientists qualified in the field of study, and I wanted to focus on this process to highlight the fact that this is the exact opposite of something garnered from Facebook or from a conversation in the pub. This is as far from fake news as it’s humanly possible to get. If you think it’s wrong, you have to go to as much trouble as they have to show your reasoning. Otherwise you’re just wasting everyone’s time.
But if you’re on this blog at all, I’m guessing that you don’t think it’s wrong. That’s not the question. The question is whether we broadcast it, or whether we keep it quiet, so as not to scare the hoi polloi.
Why shouldn’t we tell people?
For years, I’ve been hearing that we shouldn’t mention this, or at least we should add copious amounts of sweetener, rather than being, well, honest about the scale of the problem.
The arguments go something like this: if you scare people, you paralyse them so that they do nothing, or you make them spend and consume more, to shore up their defences against the coming disaster (therefore making the problem worse); and/or you make them hostile to others in their community, who they might see as competitors for dwindling resources. This is the opposite of what we should actually be doing, and so frightening people with the truth about ecology is self-defeating. It will dilute people’s will to do anything about it – they will become fatalistic.
But you tell me – would people be more or less likely to man the lifeboats if shown clearly that a collision with an iceberg is imminent? In my experience, imminent disaster is motivating, up until the point when it’s clear that nothing is going to work – and we haven’t got to that point yet. Another important thing to remember is that the majority will never be motivated. This message is for the minority that will – to persuade them to stop tinkering, and to start turning the steering wheel. And for goodness sake, to take their foot off the accelerator. Anyone who thinks that we can avoid ‘biological annihilation’ and continue to have economic growth is not part of the solution.
Another example – this article in the Huffington Post suggests that the longer a nation’s population think that their nation is going to be around, the more likely they are going to make small lifestyle changes that will help their nation be more sustainable, and in fact, helping their nation to last longer. Whereas, telling them that their nation (and indeed, the human race) is in imminent danger is unlikely to motivate them to change their lives at all. This is a ridiculous argument, in my opinion. Leaving aside the fact that the article was written by business (rather than science, or even psychology) academics, who the cynical amongst us might accuse of wanting business as usual, rather than making the difficult decisions that might siphon resources away from business and towards people, communities and nature, I have two objections. First, the majority are not going to make lifestyle changes whatever you tell them. They never have and they never will. They will adapt to changes that will be brought about by a motivated minority. The way to smooth the transition is to make their lives – the front end – as similar to the previous system as possible. And secondly, lifestyle changes are not going to be enough to crack this nut. Changes need to be systemic, and the masses will neither understand nor support this. But they might not oppose it, which is the best we can hope for.
[Another point about that article: it contained the familiar argument about a nation’s ‘environmental performance’, whilst ignoring the damage caused in other countries by the manufacture and distribution of the goods consumed in that nation – or the damage caused by the flights taken by the citizens in and out of that nation. This kind of article is mendacious propaganda, rather than serious journalism.]
But in the last couple of years, I’ve noticed more and more articles, even in the mainstream press, that spell out what’s happening clearly, rather than try to condescendingly protect their readers from the truth: like this one, or this, or this. Of course, the mainstream press is not going to suggest the radical changes required if we are to avoid a mass extinction event, but alerting people to what’s happening is a start. I think that this is a very encouraging development, and long overdue. Pretending the problem isn’t there is not going to help us solve it.
Why should we tell people?
We should tell them because if we don’t, the responses will be inadequate. And that’s exactly what’s happening.
I don’t want to cause paralysing fear and despair, naturally. We have to try to stay optimistic. But what if you’re not feeling optimistic? Do you fake it? And I’m really not optimistic – not unless we start addressing the root causes of the problem. But I don’t think that means I’m pessimistic either – just realistic. And I think that it’s realistic to believe that we can change direction, even if deep inside, I don’t believe that it’s likely. When presented with real, catastrophic risks, what do people do? They take out insurance. Most people are not stupid. I’ve heard the argument that people won’t want to hear anything about imminent collapse if their work is part of the problem – but I don’t believe it. Staff on the Titanic didn’t insist on continuing to stoke the boilers and serve drinks when it became clear that the iceberg was real and they were going to hit it. Everyone would have moved into emergency mode and abandoned their previous roles. Who’s going to buy your trinkets when faced with ‘biological annihilation’?
But there is hope – and we’ll be blogging more about this in the coming weeks and months – millions of people, in hundreds of thousands of initiatives all over the world, are building the foundations of a new system – physical and digital, co-operative, appropriately-sized, community-focused. However, co-ordination is crucial, and it has to happen fast. No individual, and no group of individuals, holds the key, but this new economy is appearing, nonetheless. What’s about to happen to humanity is the equivalent of the Titanic hitting the iceberg. Damaging the ecology of our home planet is not going to turn out well for us. Anyone who thinks that the future is not going to hold much in the way of famine and violence is unrealistically, Pollyannishly optimistic, I think. We have to change direction as quickly as we can, and as close to 180 degrees as we can manage. It’s all very nice having renewable energy and organic food, and I support those things, of course – but as long as we’re still on the Titanic, and still heading for the iceberg, those things won’t make any difference.
To change direction completely will require a radical approach – and the definition of radical is to look to the root of the problem.
What’s the root of the problem?
The root of the problem is the money system.
First, the basics – where does money come from? Sorry for teaching my grandmother to suck eggs (if that’s the case – more and more people are coming to understand this now), but banks create money when they make loans, and now around 97% of money comes from this ‘magic money tree’. Here’s an explanation from Positive Money, a group whose critique of the money system I agree with, but not their state-centred solution (see below).
Tell people about this, by the way – everyone needs to understand it. It’s an important start to understanding how the economy works, and how it’s controlled by the banking sector.
This next question is less well understood. What is inflation? A common answer might be that it’s a general rise in prices and wages. But that’s a symptom, rather than a description of the mechanisms behind it. Some might say that a cleverer answer is that it’s too much money chasing too few goods and services – and again, this is true, but still a symptom. Inflation is when the state increases the amount of money in circulation by borrowing from the central bank (and so, ultimately, from private banks) by selling government bonds, which are merely promises to provide something of real value at some point in the future – another branch of the magic money tree. This means that governments don’t have to raise taxes (and lose popular support) – they can fund essential services and expensive wars by selling bonds / borrowing from the central bank. This is, however, an unofficial tax, as prices rise, and the real value of savings falls.
In return, the state gives the banks an exclusive licence to loan money that they don’t have, and to charge interest on it – the biggest and most blatant scam the world has ever known. But – it gets worse. This interest can’t be paid back in a stable economy. Some firms will go bankrupt to reduce some of the pressure (which is why bankrupts can become president in the US – it carries no stigma, as it performs a useful service). The economy has to constantly grow to be able to pay the interest on the banks’ magic loans, and this perpetual growth is the root cause of the mass extinction event that we find ourselves in, as more habitat is sucked into the corporate machine, and more waste and toxins are pumped out.
The state pushes more money in, to ensure growth, by borrowing more from the central bank, and on it goes, with ordinary people paying for it, via inflation and interest on private debt. The state debt will never be paid back. It would be a mathematical and political impossibility. The state is just doing what it needs to do to avoid economic collapse, whatever idealism politicians may have had when they started their careers. The banks are the dominant partner in the relationship. The Bank of England in no realistic way ‘belongs to’ or is controlled by the state, regardless of official documentation that might say that the state ‘owns’ it. In the US, there’s not even that pretence. For real control, look to where the money is.
The left is wrong to believe that the state is somehow a counterbalance to corporate and financial power, or that we’re going to solve this problem by electing a different party to government.
Money always concentrates in few hands, and that money will eventually spill into the political system and corrupt it. And money is always lent at interest. In the absence of any mechanisms to prevent these things, it means that the existence of money will always result in an undemocratic and unsustainable system.
Is there a solution, or are we doomed?
There’s a solution, or to be more precise, there’s a raft of solutions that can be networked together to change direction. But co-ordination is key. First – lifestyle change. You can go here right now and start downshifting and low-impacting. I know I said it isn’t enough – but it’s still important. There are also thousands of organisations building co-operative, peer-to-peer, mutual, open source and community-owned alternatives to the corporate sector, and a group of us will launch a website later in the year to co-ordinate these organisations to make it easier to de-link from the corporate sector for the essentials of life. We’ll let you know. There is one particular group working to build an entirely new money (or rather, moneyless) system. It’s very exciting – I think that it could provide the co-ordinating lifeblood for a non-corporate economy, and I think that this is the most inspirational introduction to it, from Tim Jenkin, who in 18 months, managed to make 10 wooden keys to escape from Pretoria maximum security prison during the apartheid era. You can be sure that he’s thought this through. Again, there will be much more about this on this very blog in the coming months, but see here, here and here for a more concise introduction.
These things are only contributing to economic change – we’ll need non-corrupt (and incorruptible) governance systems to oversee public funds – some sort of local participatory budgeting, networked for regional decisions, for example. It’s not a pipe dream – it’s worked well in Brazil already, especially in Porto Alegre. And there will need to be global governance as well, to make decisions on global threats such as nuclear war, the rise of artificial intelligence or potential asteroid impact. There is no global governance at the moment – global disputes are settled as if the world were a giant school playground. The biggest kids get their own way, with no teachers around to ensure fair play or that no-one gets hurt. This is trickier, but there are more ideas now than ever before, as well as the tools required (the most important being, of course, the internet), and (surely?) the wisdom to avoid some of the bloodier potential solutions that have been tried before. Trump filling his cabinet with Goldman Sachs people isn’t going to make the task any easier (his claims that he was going to challenge the establishment were either outright lies, or he has a skewed idea of what constitutes the establishment), but it hasn’t made it impossible either. We’ll erode their power base from below, rather than challenging them head on.
So there’s no need for despair. There’s plenty to do. But first we have to accept that we’re headed for a very, very dark place unless we change direction. That’s not doom-mongering. Pretending that we can carry on as we are, just tinkering with the problem, but not changing direction (which means addressing the money system) – that’s doom-mongering.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Steve Gwynne August 27th, 2017
Could be worth raising the subject of money creation at https://ippr.org/event/policy-and-the-anthropocene-the-politics-of-a-non-linear-world
2Dave Darby August 27th, 2017
Looks interesting. The date doesn’t work for me, but it should be on the agenda.
3Tim August 27th, 2017
The idea that co-ordination is necessary is surely what has allowed people to carry on destroying the world, and the argument is commonly used for just that purpose. The few people I know of who have pretty much completely stopped emitting fossil CO2 have done it without any co-ordination. They just decided to do it and did it.
4Dave Darby August 27th, 2017
I meant co-ordination / networking of non-corporate institutions (co-operative / open source / community-owned / peer-to-peer) to build a non-hierarchical, non-extractive economy, rather than co-ordination of individuals, who, as you say, can start changing their lives without waiting for a movement to join.
5nane August 27th, 2017
yes … you could hardly call us individuals if we waited on a movement to join – we would be just another divisive group, which or course would make us easier to control. No, we must just go ahead and live the way we believe to be right, not what we have been spoon-fed to believe. And we must do it regardless of who thinks what. Just do it. We could start by saying no to everything we believe to be wrong. I’m not going to tell you the stuff which I personally believe to be wrong, as I have no wish to lead anyone to think like me (after all, individuals are a diverse group, are they not?) No … I want us to do our own thinking. That would really be something to celebrate. A humanity made up of individuals, each having their own experience of this life – really give the universe something to think about.
Having said that, I’m still experiencing bits of cognitive dissonance, and will no doubt continue to, until I work out how exactly to walk the talk – its not easy when up against the controllers – corporations, especially banks, corrupt political puppets, and all those who think I’m a wierdo and want me to be just like them. I cannot conform to this. I have to live the way I believe is right, without fear.
6John Harrison August 27th, 2017
2 things that I’d say are reason to worry.
Many people will read stuff like this, hit like on their facebook and move onto the next item clamouring for their goldfish like attention.
Second is best illustrated by an old joke. Man falls off the Empire State building. Was heard to say as he passed the fifth floor “So far, so good”
7Dave Darby August 27th, 2017
But regardless of what people’s reaction might be (and although some might skip past it, it may affect some people profoundly), should we say it, clearly, or should we pretend it’s not as bad as it is?
8Andrew Rollinson August 28th, 2017
The motto of The Royal Society is “Nullius in Verba”. It translates as “take nobody’s word for it”, and it is on their coat of arms. The Royal Society is arguably the oldest learned society in the world, founded in 1660.
It goes on to explain that its founding aim was for scientists (or natural philosophers as they were then) “to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment”. They sought truth in a world where there were spurious claims and anyone could assert anything they liked. Never was anything more true today, where sadly, science, like most things has been tainted by corporate/political influence which makes people careerist, competitive and greedy, and where research funding is predominantly in the hands of political quangos who are interested in “enterprise” rather than knowledge for its own sake, and where funding goes invariably to (in the UK) The Russell Group of businesses (sorry “Universities).
But I take solice that there are still institutions like The Royal Society which are aware of what is going on and maintain their standards.
I agree with Nane. That is how I have been living for many years now. I will never “get on”, but then I don’t want to.
9John Harrison August 28th, 2017
We should say how bad things are and what needs to be done before we fall off the cliff. Without Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, we might well be spraying DDT around with gay abandon today.
10Paul Jennings August 28th, 2017
Hierarchical societies, with and without money systems by the way, have been catastrophically undermining their ecological foundations ever since they first emerged. There is no reason to believe that this is any more than the playing out of an irreversible, ecological even, cycle of extraction, accumulation, and collapse. If fungi and bacteria had hands, they might be rubbing them right now.
The Drake Equation includes a variable which takes into account the collapse of advanced industrial civilisation before they become capable of interstellar communication or travel: the global therm-nuclear war moment if you like. It might also be the hydrocarbon crisis moment. Collapse may in fact be the only solution. It is a dreadful and depressing, seemingly misanthropic conclusion to come to, but there is one sure way in which our devastating carbon splurge might be brought to a halt, and that is through collapse. You might argue, like Jensen, that we could choose this path, but choose it or not, it’s coming. It’s going to end badly, and the sooner it does, the better.
There is nothing I would prefer to believe in than the capacity of humanity to bring about revolutionary change, indeed I spent much of my adult life believing it was possible. I just don’t see that any more, and so what I tell people makes no difference at all. How much breath I have wasted talking about anarchism and communism, preaching about this and that. The Revolution is a story we tell ourselves, just as surely as Progress is a story liberals capitalists tell themselves as they quake in the face of their own mortality.
This doesn’t give me an excuse for nihilism. On the contrary, how should we behave if we accept the inevitability of collapse, if we are mourning the 6th Extinction, and if we see that humanity, as our species evolved, from the matrix of the Holocene, intimately embedded in a co-evolved paradise, has already largely ceased to be? We are all born to die, nothing lives forever, not planets, not stars, not galaxies, and certainly not beautiful, abundant, diverse, epochs like the Holocene. We now need to learn to live with a changing world, to rebuild our humanity with the remnants of the natural world, in the hope that one day our few descendants may come to a new settlement with this planet. From our actions new resilient communities may arise, some of them might even survive what is to come, many will not. Politics is a broken thing, it can’t be mended; society is a broken thing, no-one can mend it.
11Dave Darby August 28th, 2017
Somebody on facebook said: ‘if you noticed someone’s house was on fire, you’d warn them, wouldn’t you?’, handily condensing my entire article into one sentence.
12Dave Darby August 28th, 2017
So if any species manages to develop the capability to destroy themselves with nuclear (or other) weapons, they always do? Technology always gets used?
Reminds me of Dave King’s philosophy (did you go to his gathering in Wales?) – technology is really in charge. If a corporation operating in any field doesn’t place itself on the cutting edge of technology, they’ll lose market share, so in a very literal sense, it’s the technology itself that is directing.
The credit commons idea is not about a hierarchical society without money, by the way. It’s a system that only rewards work. Money can’t make you money, and money can’t concentrate in few hands, so, if adopted as a global economy (why think small, eh?), there would be no rich or poor, because there’s no money to be scarce or plentiful. If you don’t do useful things, you don’t get credit to buy useful things.
What’s lacking is a governance system to provide a safety net and to stop anyone seizing power by force, because they have a bigger gang. If we do implement a moneyless system that would inevitably take power from banks and corporations, then if we don’t have the wit to govern ourselves in a way that prevents gangsters from taking power, then we deserve whatever’s coming to us. I know several ideas that could be tried, but we have to take power from money first, and the only way to do that is to not use it.
I’m pretty much begging you – don’t give up just yet – I don’t think you’ve really understood this. It has a chance – it really does. It’s better than Parecon, and Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism – which are moneyless but they’re not mutual credit. They’re also much too complicated – no-one wants to sit in so many meetings. Left to their own devices, a group (without complete bastards in it – and I think that most people are OK) will operate on a mutual credit system. it’s always happened – it’s always been the case, from 20k year old tally sticks to the cunieform script on the Sumerian clay tablets, and right through the middle ages to 1826, when the store of tally sticks that had built up under the houses of parliament were burned, to signal the transition to a money economy. In the least known, but possibly the greatest ever irony, the furnaces overheated and burnt down both the houses of commons and lords, and they had to be rebuilt. Throughout time, money has largely been used to a) pay taxes and b) trade at a distance. But (but, but, but……), the difference now is that with the internet, we can do both of those things via mutual credit, with blockchain to provide the ‘trust’.
The point being that although mutual credit has always dominated exchange, there was always money (well, since around 600BCE anyway), because tyrants issued it to the population in exchange for food, land, building, soldiery etc – and they had to obtain it to pay taxes. It was also used to trade with strangers, who knew it would be accepted elsewhere. But now – with the internet and blockchain – we can provide social goods and trade with strangers (in person or remotely) without money. It’s not necessary at all now, and as soon as that’s recognised, the current power structure could be in trouble. There’s certainly nothing else to trouble them – especially now that most millennials seem to thing that working in corporate social responsibility is a revolutionary, or at least a rebellious position.
I read the whole of both The Ecology of Freedom and Parecon on your recommendation, and to say that they were heavy going is quite the understatement. So, when you get a lazy evening, spend an hour or two reading this – https://www.community-exchange.org/docs/aftercapitalism.html, by one of the gang of four (that I know of) building the credit commons model. It’s not detail but it’s inspirational and educational. He escaped from Pretoria Maximum Security Prison during the apartheid era, by making ten different keys in the woodwork shop and smuggling them back to his cell, over 18 months. They’ve thought this through.
13Paul Jennings August 29th, 2017
I like the idea of revenge reading recommendations, Dave! I shall find the time to look at it properly. I promise. ?
14Dave Darby August 29th, 2017
Revenge is a bit too far. They were hard work but well worth it. ?