What if there was no cash at the ATM?
What if there was no petrol at the bowser?
What if your home didn’t have electricity or running water?
What if there was no food at the supermarket?
What if there was no ATM, or petrol station, or supermarket?
What would your life be like?
We have known about climate
change breakdown for over a hundred years. This knowledge has been more broadly accessible since the 1970’s, and it has become more acute by the decade. Yet, we have done nothing.
As climate breakdown fills the news every day now, people in wealthy countries are more aware of it. However, the general reaction has not been a change in individual behaviour, or demands for systemic change: instead, it is a mix of denial, apathy and mild despair.
The global economic system, capitalism, with its central profit motive and its quest of unending growth, is actively driving the planet to ruin. It is not just climate breakdown either – it is also the endless extraction and exploitation that results in the ecological breakdown we are now witnessing.
In wealthy countries, our entire way of life and the living standard we enjoy has been built using extreme technological leverage on a foundation of extraction, exploitation, and emissions from an abundance of fossil fuels. The very same capitalist system that has benefited some people (at the expense of many others) never considers or pays the costs of ‘externalities’ – the costs of inflicting irreversible damage on the living planet and oppressed peoples.
As a species, we are woefully unprepared for the challenge of climate breakdown. The actions required are so vast and so far-reaching that they are well beyond the capability of individual nation states to implement. Whilst the international community quibbles over which abstract emissions are attributed to whom, the rise in actual emissions never ceases. Thousands of species go extinct every year, ever faster, whilst we carry on business as usual.
The largest economies of the world are entirely committed to advancing the project of neoliberalism. The commitment is so unwavering that to even consider intentionally slowing growth, let alone reversing it, is unthinkable. Yet, there is a direct causal link between economic growth and emissions growth. Last year, 2018, saw the highest global emissions ever recorded. Global recession notwithstanding, emissions are likely to continue to grow in 2019 and beyond.
Why? Because the only way of life we can imagine is the one we are currently living. And because our so-called leaders are absent without leave, disconnected from the living planet and the realities of their citizens, vigorously upholding the status quo and looking after vested interests, busying themselves with problems of their own making, whilst ignoring the monumental ones.
Our way of life that is built on hydrocarbons in its entirety. Fossil fuels are like a vital chromosome carried in every cell of human societies. Removing our fossil fuel dependency in a few short years without decimating human societies is not possible.
And so, leaderless and lacking a compelling alternative, we refuse to change. We carry on in our lives as before, run our businesses as usual, keep producing and consuming material goods in ever increasing quantities. Until we hit hard planetary limits, as is happening right now.
A collapse unfolding
Like Jameson and Žižek said: ‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism’. So, let’s imagine a version of it.
We are fast heading towards an ecological collapse at a scale never before experienced by industrial civilisation. A collapse over the next few decades is now inevitable. However, it is not yet clear how sudden and severe it will be.
The collapse will unravel our current globalised just-in-time economy. It will start locally at first, likely in several different regions near-simultaneously. Because of the interconnected nature of the global economy these singular disruptions will soon ripple and amplify throughout the worldwide system.
We have spent decades optimising our globalised economy to improve productivity. Buffers have been reduced and redundancy has been removed from the system because they hinder speed and profits, both of which are sacrosanct.
The effects of the upcoming disruptions are unpredictable, however it is clear that they will increase suffering for the living planet and humans alike. Current situations in failed and failing states such as South Sudan, Syria and Venezuela give an indication of the types of events and distress that will unfold.
There are early signs of strain on the global food system: 2018 forecast saw the first drop in global grain stocks in over half a decade, caused by crop failures from weather events attributed to climate breakdown. If global crop failures continue for another few years, global grain stocks will diminish to a level where famine becomes a reality.
In the early days of the collapse, the global logistical system will continue operating and become militarised. Wealthy countries will protect their shipments of food and energy, increasingly by force. Borders will be closed to a compounding number of climate refugees, leaving them with nowhere to go, as their environment and livelihoods erode ever faster.
In addition to the global food system, the global finance system will be affected early. This will have flow-on effects for the rest of the industrial civilisation, as we saw during the Global Financial Crisis a mere decade ago.
Once we have disruptions in the global food, logistics and financial systems, a confluence of negative consequences will emerge and the situation will escalate. Highly specialised countries that depend on other countries for essentials like food and energy will desperately attempt to rebuild local capacity where possible, however it is now late. As populations become distressed, countries will get increasingly difficult to manage, and nation states will likely resort to more authoritarian methods of governance.
Climate breakdown will gather pace and remaining forested areas will be repurposed to growing crops in industrial monocultures. Deforestation and ecosystem destruction will further increase emissions and reduce resilience. Whenever there is a question between food security and emissions, food security wins. On each occasion, this choice buys less time, at an exponentially increasing cost.
If the disruptions start less severe and unfold more slowly over time, wealthier and more organised countries will be better able to respond in a proactive manner. However, in the case of sudden, severe shocks – especially if experienced simultaneously around the world – all bets are off.
From denial to acknowledgement to action
Why would I paint such a dire, dystopian view of the future?
Why should you care about any of this doom-mongering?
Some might expect me to say that there is still time to avert collapse. I don’t believe this is the case.
Our current industrial civilisation is fundamentally unsustainable and it will end one way or another: either we proactively reinvent our entire way of life virtually overnight across the planet, or we will be forced to do so through climate, ecological, societal and perhaps civilisational collapse.
This essay is not about pessimism, resignation or losing hope – it is about realism, acknowledgement and action.
My ask for you is this: Please do think about the unthinkable. If for nothing else, do that as a stoic exercise in ‘negative visualisation’ – imagining loss is bound to help you value everything that you currently have that much more.
Hopefully, thinking about the unthinkable will set you on a path of grieving for the living planet, the one we are methodically destroying. And perhaps at the end of that journey is acceptance – acceptance that will allow you to proactively do the following:
- Stop and have a real look. See what is actually going on in the world in regards to climate and ecological breakdown. See your part in it.
- Together with others, do everything in your power right now to stand up, make your voice heard, and demand systemic change (perhaps by joining a movement, or a rebellion)
- Minimise your household emissions and environmental footprint immediately (by reducing all consumption and energy-intensive activities such as travel) and the inevitable shift to non-abundant future should be less traumatic
- Together with others, imagine what a relocalised post-industrial civilisation might look like, and how you could plan and prepare for it (in skills, abilities, ways of organising etc.)
A post-industrial civilisation is not necessarily a Mad Max dystopia – there are many alternative futures and the path is not set. This is where I don’t agree with the ‘doomsday preppers’: preparing a rural property or a bunker and piling it full of post-apocalyptic survival kit is yet another form of individual accumulation – and denial. I believe the only way to make a new world, and to make it in that new world, is together as larger groups, not as separated and isolated individuals.
So, demand change. Be less unsustainable. Build resilience. And begin adaptation now.
All of this becomes possible once you acknowledge the unthinkable.
My thinking is informed and inspired by varied literature from many other authors. Please read this companion post for a list of essays and articles covering climate and ecological breakdown from various perspectives, including how these overlapping crises may induce collapse of industrial civilisation. I also recommend reading my earlier essays on climate breakdown for further context. I want to thank everyone who reviewed versions of this essay.
Hero image: DC-3 wreck in Iceland by Abram Goglanian