More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness; the other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly – Woody Allen
An excerpt from Tim Watkins’ book: The Consciousness of Sheep
Here’s a predicament for you:
Imagine you are one of the sailors on one of those old wooden sailing ships. Due to some poor navigation, your ship has struck some rocks and has a hole at the waterline. Water is coming in, and unless you can stem the flow, the ship will sink. However, the only way that you can get the spare timber that you need is to break up the lifeboats.
You could launch the lifeboats, but there are only enough places for half of you. Without the timber from the lifeboats, the ship will sink. So if you decide to launch, you are guaranteeing that half of you will die. On the other hand, you could break up the lifeboats and use the timber to try to stem the flow of water coming into the ship. If successful, this will save the ship and allow you all to reach dry land. But there is every chance that the timber from the lifeboats will not stem the flow of water and the ship will sink anyway. If this happens, you will all die.
You need to make a decision… and you need to make it fast! The longer you delay, the more water enters the hull, increasing the likelihood that the ship will sink. So what are you going to do?
There is no correct answer. That is why it is referred to as a predicament rather than a problem. One course of action – trying to save the ship – offers the possibility of salvation, but carries the risk of complete extinction. The other course of action – launching the lifeboats – guarantees that half of you will survive, but condemns the other half to a watery grave.
From an individual perspective, the choice you take will be determined by how likely you believe you will be to get a place on a lifeboat. If you believe your chances are high, you will choose to launch the lifeboats. If you believe your chances are low, you will choose to repair the ship. But suppose you are the Captain of the ship who, traditionally, is expected to go down with the ship anyway. Even if the lifeboats are launched, you will be staying on the ship. So your only chance of survival is to break up the lifeboats and try to repair the ship… even though this course of action could result in the deaths of everybody on board – including yourself.
A cowardly Captain – acting out of self-interest – will choose to try to repair the ship, as this is the only way that he can survive. But a heroic Captain could be expected to act in the public interest or for the greater good. Such a Captain may well sacrifice some lives in order to guarantee the lives of those who are given places on the lifeboats. But even a heroic Captain’s judgement will be clouded by self-interest and the growing sense of panic that accompanies a looming catastrophe. Such a Captain may well overstate the odds of successfully repairing the ship in order to justify breaking up the lifeboats.
Humanity is faced with a similar – albeit more complex – predicament today. We face a climate change time bomb that could result in our extinction in the future unless radical action is taken now. However, we face an energy crisis within the next decade unless we can supplement our dwindling supply of cheap fossil fuels. And clouding all of our judgement is an immediate and ongoing economic crisis that seems to get worse with every attempt to overcome it.
Our “launch the lifeboats” option would be to cut our fossil fuel use, thereby collapsing the already weakened debt-based economy, in order to transition to a steady-state, zero-carbon economy based around renewable (and possibly nuclear) energy. This option would inevitably result in massive economic, social and political disruption. It would most probably result in local famines – including in developed countries such as the UK that depend upon food imports for survival. It would certainly result in a serious economic crash as the global economy falls apart. However, it would at least guarantee that a significant proportion of the human population would survive.
Our “fix the ship” option is to use the energy we generate from renewables to supplement our fossil fuel energy in order to maintain at least some economic growth. If we go down this road, we can only hope (and at present this is entirely wishful thinking) that while we carry on with business as usual, clever people somewhere else will come up with a futuristic technological fix (such as carbon capture and storage, or only a little less plausibly, nuclear fusion) that will allow us to continue to grow our global economy without destroying our planet’s life support systems. If this were to work out, our species may go on to prosper. However, it is more likely that we will mess up – failing to resolve either our energy shortage or our economic crisis – with the result that climate change will merely serve to bring down the final curtain on a civilisation already in terminal decline.
Like the sailors on the stricken ship, our personal self-interest is in maintaining business as usual – and indeed, denying that we face a crisis at all – rather than launching lifeboats that we may not have places in. Put more simply, none of us are about to give up our holidays abroad, our cars, central heating, consumer durables or our obesity-creating food excesses just so people in the future will have a greater chance of surviving. So we must look to the Captain – the politicians and various “experts” who are meant to consider the public interest in making the decision.
Unfortunately, the Captain has allowed self-interest to cloud his judgement, and has decided that we must fix the ship. The truth is that most of the lifeboats were broken up decades ago when – symbolically – the US Reagan administration tore the solar panels from the Whitehouse roof. Had we launched the lifeboats then, we may well have survived. If we launch the remaining lifeboats now, humanity will survive, but many of us are not going to make it. But if we do not launch the lifeboats… what then?