Should we not mention what’s happening to the biosphere, in case it scares the mainstream?

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Posted Aug 27 2017 by Dave Darby of
Teetering on the edge of an ecological collapse

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.

For more peer-reviewed reports on the coming ecological catastrophe, see here, here and here.

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.