Tuesday , November 19 2019
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Climbing Everest in high heels

Britain has – apparently – been thrown into crisis overnight.  Meanwhile across the channel, French president Macron is desperately trying to extinguish the flames of another weekend of mass protests that have now spread to Belgium and Holland.  In Eastern Europe the hard-right are gaining support; even undermining the previously untouchable Angela Merkel’s power base in the former East Germany.  Across the Atlantic meanwhile, the lines between deranged Democrats and MAGA nationalists are being drawn in readiness for America’s second civil war.  We are surely living through the greatest crisis in modern history.

Well, yes indeed we are.  But everything set out in the first paragraph is no more than the froth on the beer.  These political spasms are merely the outward manifestation of a human catastrophe that has been decades in the making.

Two far greater symptoms of our predicament have gained at least some public traction this year.  First was an all too visible plastic pollution crisis that is increasingly difficult to ignore now that China has ceased acting as the West’s rubbish dump.  Second is the somewhat less visible insect apocalypse that has seen the near extinction of a raft of pollinating insect species; without which we humans are doomed to starvation.  Interestingly, while these two symptoms are only tenuously related to climate change, they have tended to be included under that shorthand heading.  Plastic certainly damages the environment, but its build up owes far more to the ongoing power of the petrochemicals industry and the myth of recycling than to changes in climate.  The same goes for the insects.  While there may have been some climactic impact on migrations and reproduction, the main cause is the vast quantities of chemical insecticides required by an industrialised agriculture tasked with feeding 7.5 billion humans on a planet that could barely feed one seventh of that without fossil fuels and agrichemicals.

In the affected areas, local populations have been stunned by a series of “red tide” events that result in the mass deaths of fish and other marine creatures.  Climate change is indirectly involved in these events because of the increased rainfall from warmer storms.  But once again it is our industrial agriculture that is the primary cause – the giant oxygen-free zones beneath algae and phytoplankton blooms that form because of artificial fertilisers washed off the land when it rains.  When marine creatures stray into these oxygen-free zones (which are pinkish-red in colour due to concentrated hydrogen sulphide) they suffocate before they can swim to safety.

Off most people’s radar is the ongoing sixth mass extinction, as we lose thousands of species every year.  Again, while some of this is directly due to the changing climate, the larger part is due to human activities like agriculture, deforestation and strip mining simply chewing up natural habitats to make way for the creation of the various resources – including food – required to sustain a human population that is projected to reach 10 billion by mid-century.

The use of the term “climate change” to describe these catastrophes is deceptive.  If we were looking at our predicament in totality, we would include these crises alongside climate change as a series of (often interacting) sub-sets of a much greater problem… let’s call it the “human impact crisis.”

Crucially, by focussing solely on a changing climate, we can exercise a form of psychological denial in which human civilisation is able to continue chasing infinite growth on a finite planet while yet-to-be-invented technologies are deployed to magically heal the damage that our over-consumptive lifestyles are having on the human habitat.

The focus on climate change also permits us to avoid any examination of those human activities that increasingly stand in the way of the bright green technological future we keep promising ourselves.  Shortages in a range of key resources, including several rare earths, cobalt, lithium, chromium, zinc, gold and silver are very likely to materialise in the next decade if Western countries get anywhere close to their targets for switching to renewable electricity and electric cars (even though even these are just a fraction of what would be required to decarbonise the global economy).

Energy is an even bigger problem.  For the first time since the dark ages, humanity is switching from high-density energy sources (nuclear, coal, gas and oil) to ultra-low density energy sources (tide, wind, wave and solar).  We are – allegedly – choosing to do this.  However, because we have depleted fossil fuels on a low-hanging fruit basis, it is costing us more in both energy and money to maintain the energy needed to power the global economy.  As more of our energy has to be channelled into energy production (e.g. the hugely expensive Canadian bitumen sands and the US fracking industry) ever less energy is available to power the wider economy. This has forced us into a crisis I refer to as “Schrodinger’s renewables,” in which the technologies being deployed supposedly to wean us off fossil fuels end up merely being added in order to maintain sufficient economic growth to prevent the entire civilisation collapsing.

This, of course, brings us back to the increasingly heated debates in the US Congress, the UK Parliament and the streets of 100 French towns and cities.  Economic growth is the fantasy that almost everyone is buying into as a solution to our predicament.  Sure, some call it “green growth,” but it isn’t.  In reality it is, and always was central bank growth.  Why?  Because every unit of currency in circulation in the West was created with interest attached.  In such a system, we either grow the economy or we inflate the value currency back to something more in line with the real economy.  The former is impossible and the latter is devastating… which is why central bankers around the world have been quietly panicking for the best part of a decade.

To be clear, since 1980 the western economic system has inflated a series of asset bubbles, each of which has subsumed and outgrown its predecessor.  In the 1980s companies bailed out failing companies to save themselves.  In the 1990s stock markets bailed out companies to save stock markets.  In the 2000s banks bailed out stock markets and then states and central banks bailed out banks.  Next time around it will be states and currencies that need bailing out.  And in the absence of space aliens, it is not clear who is going to be riding to the rescue.  What that means, dear reader, is that everything you depend upon (but didn’t know it) for life support – inter-bank lending systems, letters of credit and freight insurance, international trade arrangements, employment, state pensions, etc.  – is going to go away (at least until some kind of debt-write-off (either directly or via “helicopter money”) and a new currency system can be put into place.

The other legacy from this period of debt-based asset inflation is a series of grossly unequal societies; divided, ultimately, between those who get to spend the (uninflated) debt-based currency first and those (the 99.9 percent) who only get the currency after its value has been inflated away – primarily those who depend upon a wage/salary from employment rather than an income from shares and other investments.  Most people accept some inequality.  However a lack of economic growth (outside banking and tech) has created deep hostility to those political parties that cling to the pre-2008 neoliberal orthodoxy.  The result has been a growth in populist movements claiming to know how to restore the economy to rates of growth last seen in the 1990s.  Political economist Mark Blyth summed up the difference between the left and right wing variants of populism thus:

  • The right says neoliberalism ruined the economy and immigrants took your jobs
  • The left says neoliberalism ruined the economy and capitalists took your jobs.

Needless to say – as the boy Macron is learning to his cost – now is not a happy time to be a neoliberal politician.  The broader problem, however, is that the proposed solutions from the populists are no more likely to result in another round of economic growth simply because western civilisation is already well past the point of overshoot.  China – the place where most of the jobs went and where most of the stuff we consume is made – already consumes half of the world’s coal, copper, steel, nickel and aluminium.  It also consumes nearly two-thirds of the world’s concrete.  To grow at just 3.5 percent would require that China consume all of the world’s reserves of those resources by 2038 – at which point it would also be consuming a quarter of the world’s oil and uranium and half of the world’s grain harvest.  The impossibility of this is what people mean when they use the word “unsustainable” to describe our situation.

Nevertheless, even supposedly green parties cling to the promotion of economic growth as an electoral strategy.  Rather than admit the impossibility of further growth, however, they reach instead for some mythical “green growth” that will supposedly follow the industrial scale deployment of non-renewable renewable energy harvesting technologies like wind turbines and solar panels that require fossil fuels in their manufacture , and for which the planet lacks sufficient material reserves.  Promising de-growth is, however, politically toxic in the current climate.

Most green growth advocates imagine a switch from extraction and manufacturing to (largely digital) services that will somehow decouple resource and energy growth from GDP.  That is, we can all continue to prosper even as our use of planetary resources falls back to something like the amounts consumed in the 1750s.  Writing in Resilience, Jason Hickel gives the lie to this:

“This sounds reasonable on the face of it. But services have grown dramatically in recent decades, as a proportion of world GDP — and yet global material use has not only continued to rise, but has accelerated, outstripping the rate of GDP growth. In other words, there has been no dematerialization of economic activity, despite a shift to services.

“The same is true of high-income nations as a group — and this despite the increasing contribution that services make to GDP growth in these economies. Indeed, while high-income nations have the highest share of services in terms of contribution to GDP, they also have the highest rates of resource consumption per capita. By far.

“Why is this? Partly because services require resource-intensive inputs (cinemas and gyms are hardly made out of air). And partly also because the income acquired from the service sector is used to purchase resource-intensive consumer goods (you might get your income from working in a cinema, but you use it to buy TVs and cars and beef).”

And, of course, without the income derived from making all of that stuff for service providers to consume, nobody can afford to buy the services and the economy will collapse.  Not that anyone has noticed this for now, as we descend into the politics of blame in which widening inequality and poverty at the bottom is blamed on one or other of a culture’s preferred out groups – Tories, Democrats, socialists, libertarians, migrants, the banks, the European Union, Israel, Angela Merkel, the Rothschild family, Donald Trump… choose your favourite pantomime villain; but don’t expect to be going anywhere but down.

Politics matter, of course.  In a future of economic contraction it is far better to be governed consensually by people who understand the predicament and who plan a route to deindustrialisation that has as few casualties as possible on the way down… one reason not to keep voting for parties that dole out corporate welfare at the top while driving those at the bottom to destitution.  That road tends to end with guillotines and firing squads.

For all of its passion and drama, however, the role of politics in our current predicament is somewhat akin to the choice of footwear when setting out to climb a mountain.  Ideally you want to choose a pair of stout climbing boots; but nobody is offering those.  For now the choice is between high heels and flip-flops to climb the highest mountain we have ever faced.  If we are lucky, the political equivalent a half decent pair of training shoes might turn up, but while the world is focussed on economic growth; that is the best we can hope for… and we still have to climb the mountain whatever shoes we wear.

As you made it to the end…

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