NOTE: Over the past nine months I have posted thirteen articles about the ecological crisis, my proposed response, and how this response might be implemented. The present document is a comprehensive summary of that series. Links to the original articles, which include diagrams, graphs, and details, are provided at the start of each section. This lengthy post will likely be my last until I have completed the third edition of The Economics of Needs and Limits.
Last year I decided to write a book about my proposed response to the ecological crisis. To prepare for this task I consulted numerous sources to update myself on the environment’s current state. In doing so I came to three startling conclusions that pushed the book onto the back burner.
My first shock was that I had been wrong in my longstanding assumption that a sharp reduction in humankind’s environmental impact would be sufficient to reverse our damage to nature. The rapidly melting Arctic ice and the possibility of massive methane releases convinced me that direct human intervention, or geoengineering, is urgently required to prevent runaway global warming.
In metaphorical terms, my previous assumption was that we had inflicted a flesh wound on nature, which would heal on its own once our impact had reached a sustainable level. My new understanding was that we had inflicted a mortal wound, which would be fatal without dramatic human intervention.
A second surprise was that scientists, progressives, environmentalists, the media, and respected organizations such as the IPCC were seriously distorting the science behind climate change. Most significantly, they were disseminating the emissions fallacy by fixating on the increases in greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations while ignoring the unsafe concentrations themselves. This meant that virtually the entire GHG problem was being swept under the rug. It also allowed geoengineering, which is the only way to reduce these concentrations, to be mockingly sidelined.
The final jolt came when I surveyed the social landscape to find a group that could initiate the required geoengineering measures. Despite my initial bias against the military, I concluded that only this social force has the capacity and potentially the will to undertake this crucial project.
The remaining posts in this series record my progress in grasping the true state of the ecological crisis and in formulating a plan of action on this basis. I began by investigating the devastating environmental effects of excess GHGs.
B. THE ECOLOGICAL CRISIS
GHGs are at the root of both the climate and ocean emergencies, so an accurate assessment of their effects is crucial to finding solutions.
GHGs cause environmental harm in two distinct ways: through warming and chemistry. All GHGs cause global warming by trapping the sun’s heat. This warms the global ocean, which causes a decrease in the water’s oxygen level. The ocean’s warming and deoxygenation both occur in the short term.
There is also a longer term effect. After several decades the ocean begins to release its additional heat to the atmosphere. The delay is due to thermal inertia – the slow transfer of heat within the ocean’s enormous mass. This delayed warming effect is the predominant cause of climate change.
CO2 is unique among the GHGs in that it also has a harmful chemical effect. About a third of the CO2 released by humankind is physically absorbed by the ocean, where its molecules react with water to produce carbonic acid. This process has increased the ocean’s acidity by about 35% since the pre-industrial period, causing severe problems for certain types of marine life.
In brief, all GHGs produce short-term ocean warming and deoxygenation as well as longer-term climate change. CO2 in addition causes short-term ocean acidification.
Note that these effects are a little tricky to grasp. CO2 and the other GHGs have slightly different effects, there are impacts at different time scales, and there are both warming and chemical causes for these impacts. What would help greatly is a basic conceptual model to clarify these details. Such a model, however, is nowhere to be found in the sources I consulted – most conspicuously the IPCC’s voluminous reports.
Far from being accidental, this omission is part of the scientific distortion mentioned above. For those who are determined to twist the facts and avoid a rational environmental response, confusion – like doubt – is an indispensable tool.
The emissions fallacy is the crown jewel of environmental deceit. As noted above, the term refers to the fixation on GHG emissions while ignoring their unsafe concentrations. To show how utterly unscientific this is, let me briefly explain how these gases produce their warming effects.
The core fact to remember is this: global warming is caused by the rising levels of unsafe GHG concentrations acting over time. Because CO2 is the main warming culprit (other GHGs such as methane and nitrous oxide add about 45% to CO2’s effects), I will use it as my example to clarify this statement.
Assume that the maximum safe CO2 concentration is 310 ppm, which was reached around 1950. When this concentration rose to 320 ppm, a “blanket” of CO2, 10 ppm thick, covered the atmosphere and warmed the planet beyond its normal range. When CO2 reached 330 ppm, a second blanket was added, so two blankets were warming the globe. When it reached 340 ppm, a third blanket was added, and so on. Today, at around 410 ppm, ten such blankets are smothering planet Earth.
The key point here is that, because CO2 is persistent in the atmosphere, each of these blankets has been contributing to global warming for its entire lifespan. Thus the warming we are currently experiencing is the total of the first blanket’s warming for about sixty years, the second blanket’s warming for about fifty years, the third blanket’s warming for about forty years, etc. This means that, even if we avoid adding an eleventh blanket by immediately halting all emissions, we will still have ten blankets warming the planet for decades or centuries to come.
The only way to defend the emissions fixation is to claim that those ten CO2 blankets cause no significant harm. However, this claim is indefensible. Humankind is now experiencing serious and wide-ranging damage from global warming, and we have yet to feel the full effects of these blankets due to the ocean’s thermal inertia. The current CO2 concentration, in other words, is quite sufficient to destroy our world.
The IPCC has given formal expression to this fallacy through its emissions scenarios. These are various GHG emissions trends, based on different policies and social behaviors, that result in a range of concentrations. The idea is that governments can pick a trend that results in purportedly safe concentrations and then establish the policies and behaviors to achieve them.
But these scenarios are nonsense. The IPCC is playing around with the thickness and timing of future GHG blankets while leaving the existing ones firmly in place. If the IPCC were scientifically honest it would instead be using concentration scenarios. These would recognize the two-sided nature of the problem by offering a two-sided solution: draw down existing concentrations while minimizing future emissions.
Such scenarios would also underscore a crucial point: the rational goal for GHGs is not reduced emissions, but safe concentrations. Reduced emissions are obviously helpful in achieving safe concentrations, but they are not the goal themselves.
The IPCC’s failure to choose this clearly indicated strategy means that it is not a scientific body, but rather a political body with a scientific facade.
The narrow focus on GHG emissions suggests that at least this part of the solution is being aggressively pursued, but this is far from true. What is actually being pursued is “mainstream mitigation” – my term for the absurdly inadequate approach to excess GHG concentrations that is currently in place. “Mainstream” in this context refers to those organizations, institutions, media outlets, etc. that acknowledge the reality of climate change, but that defer to the IPCC and other mainstream voices for scientific analysis and policy guidance.
Here’s the problem. GHG emissions are driven by three factors: the population level, the average consumption level, and GHG-related efficiencies. The first two of these, however, are almost never mentioned when solutions are proposed. When was the last time you heard a standard source declare that population and consumption must be urgently cut? As a result of this selectivity, efficiency improvements are the only measures normally suggested. This is why “clean energy” has been widely touted as the answer to climate change and ocean degradation.
The situation is even worse than this because many efficiency improvements are unacceptable to the corporate world. If an improvement will reduce profits then it will be fought tooth and nail by corporate lobbyists, lawyers, and executives. Thus, unless intense public pressure is brought to bear, many technically feasible enhancements will never see the light of day.
“Mainstream mitigation” refers to the combination of the emissions fallacy and this restricted approach to emissions reductions. I use the term “full mitigation” when all relevant factors are targeted. Thus, full mitigation would address unsafe GHG concentrations, population, consumption, and all technically feasible GHG-related efficiencies. Mainstream mitigation, by contrast, ignores the first three entirely and reduces the last to acceptable efficiencies only.
The overall effect of these restrictions is that mainstream mitigation addresses less than 1% of the unsafe GHG concentrations. This is negligible, so a startling assertion can be made: under present policies, the climate and ocean emergencies are not being addressed at all. Electric cars, nuclear power, wind turbines, solar panels, and carbon taxes are all false hopes that fit comfortably within that trifling 1%. They are sound and fury, signifying NOTHING.
Time is of extreme importance when dealing with the ecological crisis. This is true not only because our damage to nature continues to increase, but also because it could suddenly accelerate and place a solution beyond reach. Two concepts are required to address this critical factor: the tipping point and the point of no return (PONR).
A tipping point refers to the degree of environmental degradation where positive feedbacks begin to reinforce human actions. Although this will increase the rate of degradation, it does not necessarily mean that a solution is impossible. A rapid and effective human response will in many cases pull the environment back from the brink of disaster. However, if such a response does not occur, the degradation will continue and a PONR may be reached. This is the point where even heroic human action is futile and ecosystem collapse is inevitable.
Succinctly stated, environmental degradation means that human action is urgently required, a tipping point means that an emergency exists and human action is immediately required, and a PONR means that our intercession is too late.
The timings of tipping points and PONRs are difficult for scientists to specify, but the attempts must be made, especially for the deadly PONRs. Take Arctic ice as an example. This probably reached a tipping point around 2005 when the region’s declining albedo (reflectivity) triggered a positive feedback: more solar energy absorption, hence more melting, hence more solar energy absorption, hence more melting, etc.
When will Arctic ice reach a PONR that would make runaway global warming a virtual certainty? My own estimate is five years from now – 2022. If this holds up to scrutiny, then any proposed solution for the melting ice and impending methane releases must be completed before this deadline. Thus, a geoengineering proposal that entails ten years of research and five more years to establish international governance would be dead on arrival: it simply couldn’t work in the limited time available.
Tipping points sometimes arise in public discourse, but PONRs are rarely mentioned. This is part of the suppression of urgency that is central to the environmental distortions. If “clean energy” is to successfully pacify the environmentally concerned, then the extreme urgency of looming PONRs must be downplayed or swept aside. The only recourse for the concerned is to insist that scientists do their best to identify both tipping points and PONRs for crucial ecosystems, and to proceed without their involvement if they refuse. Any reasonable estimates are better than none.
Geoengineering is widely misunderstood for two main reasons. First, its core purpose is never revealed in the public arena. Instead we are fed snippets of information that paint a disorganized and inaccurate picture. Second, powerful interests are deeply concerned that embracing this approach would expose capitalism’s ecological bankruptcy and destroy the false hopes built around the “clean energy” scam. Mainstream sources have therefore been induced to dismiss geoengineering as unethical and hare-brained.
Why is geoengineering necessary? Because the rapid increases in GHG concentrations have destroyed the pre-industrial balance between the heat flowing in from the sun and out from the Earth. The GHG build-up has created an energy imbalance that could destroy the biosphere, and geoengineering is the only way to reverse this perilous situation.
Given the stated imbalance, there are two ways to attack the problem: reduce the heat inflow and increase the heat outflow. This distinction is the basis for geoengineering’s split into two categories: solar radiation management (SRM) and carbon dioxide removal (CDR). SRM decreases the incoming solar heat, and CDR increases the outgoing terrestrial heat. (Unfortunately CDR refers to CO2 alone. Future research will hopefully extend this to GHG removal generally.)
SRM comprises four main methods. The first and most significant of these is the release of sulfates or other aerosols into the stratosphere. This dispersion mimics the known cooling effect of volcanic eruptions, is relatively inexpensive, and has been studied in some detail by climate scientists. The other three methods are surface brightening to make lands, roads, and roofs more reflective, cloud brightening to whiten low-level marine clouds, and space-based mirrors to reflect the sun’s rays. These hold less promise, although space-based mirrors could be highly effective if some challenging technical problems can be solved.
CDR can be subdivided into methods that enhance natural processes and those that use technical means to extract CO2 directly from the air. Included in the first group are land and forest management to sequester CO2 at an accelerated rate, enhanced weathering to speed the removal of CO2 by rocks on land or in the ocean, and amplifying the ocean’s overturning circulation to sequester CO2 in the deep ocean. The second group includes various industrial techniques that remove the highly diluted CO2 from the atmosphere. The concentrated CO2 that results is then sequestered in geological formations or used in other industrial processes.
A little-known fact about CDR is that the IPCC has implicitly recognized it as a valid response to climate change for decades. Starting with the organization’s second assessment report in 1995, the term “mitigation” has been defined as the reduction of GHG emissions AND the enhancement of their sinks. A “sink” is defined as, “any process, activity, or mechanism that removes a greenhouse gas … from the atmosphere.” (Glossary, Synthesis Report) These definitions cover both the natural and technical CDR methods, not just for CO2 but for all GHGs.
This implies that, when mainstream sources chant the mantra of “adaptation and mitigation”, they are actually embracing half of geoengineering. This is never acknowledged, and the term “mitigation” is frequently used in reference to emissions reductions alone. In both cases we can readily guess why.
NOTE: I didn’t completely understand the issues surrounding the word “mitigation” when I wrote my original posts. For this reason I too used “mitigation” in the emissions-only sense, and “full mitigation” was not defined until this summary.
The arguments for and against geoengineering are difficult to evaluate without prejudice because, as noted above, its methods have been subjected to intense derision. A striking example is found in Michael Mann’s 2016 book, The Madhouse Effect. Here the well-known climate scientist dismisses geoengineering as “technofix schemes” and “a crudely applied speculative mechanical fix”. With equal disdain, he refers to the technologies for extracting atmospheric CO2 as “giant sucking machines”.
It is worth noting that Mann relies heavily on the emissions fallacy to provide the “scientific” justification for his comments. He does this by falsely depicting emissions reductions and geoengineering as alternative rather than complementary measures, and by insisting that reducing emissions is the only solution. In peddling this story he steadfastly ignores the unsafe GHG concentrations that currently threaten the biosphere. This is the fallacy in full bloom.
Here’s the truth: there are no valid arguments against geoengineering in principle. Emissions reductions can slow the growth rate of the Earth’s energy imbalance, but only geoengineering can reverse it. This is irrefutable climate science. There are valid arguments against the careless or inequitable implementation of geoengineering, but this is a different matter from rejecting the approach itself.
That said, let me briefly rebut two arguments that are often used to reject geoengineering in principle.
The first is that geoengineering poses a “moral hazard”, which means it could undermine the incentives to reduce emissions. There are two unstated premises here: the problem is unsafe emissions, and current emissions reduction efforts are effective. Both are false. As explained, the problem is unsafe concentrations, and current emissions reductions achieve very little. Thus, any undermining that might occur is not a hazard of practical significance.
A second common anti-geoengineering argument is that “… the solution to global warming is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves.” (Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything, p. 279). In the past, when I believed that humankind had inflicted only a flesh wound on nature, I shared Klein’s view. But I was wrong, and so is she. “Fixing ourselves” refers to radical economic changes, which are indisputably necessary. However, such changes can do nothing more than decrease humankind’s future impact; they can’t repair the damage we’ve already done. The unfortunate reality is that geoengineering – fixing the world – is now imperative if we are to heal nature’s mortal wound.
Thus far I have dealt narrowly with GHGs and the distortions employed to conceal their disastrous effects. I would now like to step back and offer a broad characterization of the ecological crisis we face.
Humankind’s environmental impact is primarily the result of our economic activities. Given capitalism’s inherent expansionism, these activities increased steadily after the system’s appearance in the 16th century. They then accelerated rapidly after the Americas were colonized and the use of fossil fuels became widespread. The enormous waste flows that resulted eventually overwhelmed the biosphere’s absorption capacities. The first indication of this pivotal event came in the 1950s when atmospheric CO2 rose above its long-term maximum of 300 ppm. Other indications, such as grossly polluted waters and decimated habitats, soon followed.
This wide-ranging violation of natural limits is the fundamental, underlying cause of the ecological crisis. It is properly referred to as ecological overshoot, or simply overshoot.
Overshoot has produced two distinct sets of environmental problems: those based on excessive GHGs and those based on non-GHG effects. The latter include habitat destruction, species extinctions, chemical and radiological toxification, and plastic-ridden oceans. These two categories must be clearly distinguished because they represent different levels of urgency and require different responses.
Regarding the urgencies, the GHG-based problems are subject to imminent tipping points and PONRs, and thus constitute extreme emergencies. This means they must be tackled immediately and at the highest priority. The non-GHG problems are all serious and will eventually threaten life on Earth. However, they likely don’t entail short-term tipping points and PONRs, and therefore don’t pose immediate existential threats. These challenges can thus be addressed at a lower priority level.
Regarding the responses, the GHG-based problems must be addressed through measures that modify both nature and society. Nature must be modified for the reason cited above: GHGs have damaged the living world to such an extent that only decisive human action can prevent disaster. Society must also be modified because effective emissions reductions require population and consumption decreases as well as greater efficiencies. Fully including all three factors will require a radical economic transformation.
The non-GHG-based problems are somewhat different in that they require changes in the social sphere alone. There are no geoengineering solutions for habitat destruction, chemical toxification, and the rest. These problems can only be addressed through the radical economic transformation just mentioned.
To recap, the root cause of the ecological crisis is the rapid increase in humankind’s economic activities, which created massive wastes that eventually overwhelmed the biosphere’s resilience. This is ecological overshoot. The resulting GHG-based problems are emergencies that must be addressed immediately through natural and social measures. The non-GHG-based problems are non-emergencies, have a lower priority, and can be addressed through social measures alone.
The mainstream view differs sharply from this because it reflects the Great Crisis Reduction – my term for the intentional trivialization of the ecological crisis. This extraordinary deception was achieved in several steps. First, the overarching problem of ecological overshoot was left unrecognized. Next, public attention was focused on climate change. Then, this attention was narrowed to emissions reductions. Finally, it was fixed on the current obsession: acceptable efficiencies or “clean energy”. The public mind has thus been shifted from an overwhelmed biosphere to solar panels and carbon taxes. A more cynical manipulation is hard to imagine.
C. MEASURES AND IMPLEMENTATION
The true nature of the ecological crisis dictates the priorities for a rational response: the climate and ocean emergencies must be aggressively tackled first, and the underlying overshoot condition must then be addressed through economic restructuring. Given this sequence, I begin with the emergencies.
To qualify as rational, an emergency response must meet three requirements: it must be fact-based, timely, and proportionate. Fact-based means that the fallacies and deceptions described above are replaced by undistorted science. Timely means that a proposed solution could realistically succeed before a PONR is encountered. And proportionate means that the scale of the solution matches the scale of the problem. To restate these important criteria: humankind must take the scientifically correct actions, within the ecologically available timeframes, at scales that are adequate to solve the problems.
The obvious answer to excessive GHG concentrations is to quickly decrease them through full mitigation – the targeting of all relevant GHG factors. However, there is a priority order even within the emergencies. As mentioned earlier, my estimate of the Arctic’s PONR is 2022. This is likely the first such deadline we will encounter, so reversing the Arctic’s collapse is at the top of my list.
The sole method for achieving this goal within the available timeframe is SRM. Given the current state of scientific knowledge, this will involve sending planes to the Arctic to spread sulfate aerosols in order to block a small percentage of the sun’s radiant heat. The results must be carefully monitored to minimize inequitable or unintended consequences, but this drastic step must be taken without delay to prevent an imminent methane calamity.
The next PONR we will likely meet relates to the global effects of unsafe GHG concentrations. Again I have to rely on my own judgment, but I believe that a PONR of 2027 – ten years from now – is a reasonable estimate. The CO2 concentration at that point will be about 440 ppm, which is 57% above the pre-industrial level. Given the positive feedbacks seen to date, this will almost certainly be enough to trigger an unstoppable spiral of climate and ocean degradation.
To avoid this second PONR, GHG concentrations must be rapidly decreased through full mitigation. As well, intensive research must be quickly conducted to improve existing CDR techniques and to extend the range of GHG extraction to include methane and possibly the other GHGs.
This proposed set of measures meets the stated criteria for a rational emergency response. It is fact-based in that it avoids the emissions fallacy and other scientific errors. It is timely in that it acknowledges the proximity of estimated PONRs. And it is proportionate in that it embraces large-scale geoengineering to repair humankind’s large-scale damage to the natural world.
Once this response has been activated, attention can be shifted to tackling the underlying overshoot problem. This will entail a sharp decrease in humankind’s environmental impact by reducing population and consumption levels while increasing efficiencies to the limits of technical feasibility. I refer to this combination as rapid impact reduction, or RIR. Note that RIR is almost the same as full mitigation. The only difference is that RIR addresses all efficiencies, not just those related to GHGs. This means that seriously tackling unsafe GHG concentrations will put us firmly on the path to reversing overshoot.
Although the above response to the ecological crisis is logical and necessary, there is no indication that it will be implemented in the time available. On the contrary, lies and fallacies have been widely disseminated to prevent precisely this development. Several questions must therefore be asked: Why would humankind, at this existential cusp, refuse to seriously consider rational measures? What is the source of the diversionary deceptions? What, in brief, is really going on here?
The answers to these questions lie in the political realm, where perceptions are manufactured and social decisions are made. However, this is not a reference to electoral politics: the parties, personalities, policies, and elections that are publicly visible and openly discussed. It is instead a reference to deep politics: the hard realities of class, power, and social control that are rarely acknowledged in the public domain.
Why is it necessary to breach the political surface and explore the hidden depths beneath? Because the ecological crisis is rooted in a 500-year-old economic system that is now obsolete and must be superseded. However, this system provides immense benefits to powerful people who will fiercely resist a shift that would threaten their privileged positions. The implementation of rational measures will therefore entail a confrontation with an entrenched and dominant social force.
Stated differently, solving this crisis is not simply an adjustment to the current social order, which could in theory be achieved through electoral politics. It is instead a highly disruptive transition to a new social order, which will require penetrating political insights to overcome the imposing obstacles that stand in the way.
The key insight is that real political power in the major capitalist countries is held not by the people, but by the capitalist class. This is historically obvious. These societies arose from European feudalism, a system dominated in each country by a landowning class. As manufacturing flourished after the 15th century, the rising capitalists gradually replaced the landowners as society’s ruling group. At no point in this historical process was political power transferred to the populace. On the contrary, historian Eric Hobsbawm has found that the British people were granted parliamentary rights only after capitalist power had been fully consolidated and the workers no longer threatened its rule.
This brief foray into deep politics suffices to answer the above questions. What’s really going on is capitalist class rule rather than the imagined popular sovereignty. Rational measures are not being considered because they would end capitalism’s expansionary binge, which would destroy the power and privileges enjoyed by this class. The deceptions were put in place to steer concerned minds away from the ecological truth and to discredit the undesirable solutions.
What these answers clearly imply is that the capitalist class must be removed from power and replaced with a ruling group that will rapidly create a sustainable future. This conclusion will be difficult for most people to accept, but it is impossible to evade. So the next question is: which group could undertake these fundamentally transformative tasks in the time available?
For a social group to remove the capitalist class from power and quickly move society towards sustainability, it must meet three criteria. First, it must have the physical means of coercion to uproot a powerful group. That is, it must possess serious weaponry. Second, it must have the organizational and technical capacity to rapidly implement the proposed environmental response. And third, it must have the will to proceed as described.
Given the proximity of PONRs, the first two requirements must currently be met. There is no time for a group to gain these capabilities if they don’t already exist. The will to act is a different matter. Even if this is currently absent, it could suddenly appear in certain groups due to a significant shift in perceptions and attitudes. Given the speed of environmental decline and its momentous implications, such a shift could well happen in the near future. In brief, the target group must have both the present capacity and the potential will to proceed as indicated.
It is futile to look for a qualifying group within the populace. Despite the liberal and progressive faith in action from below, the people have been molded by the ruling class and its adherents to embrace the suicidal status quo. As well, popular groups have failed to develop the theory, strategy, and leadership required to respond rationally to the ecological crisis. Most have been ensnared by the false promises of mainstream mitigation, with little chance of escape before time runs out.
So far as I can determine, the only group that meets the stated criteria is the military. It has the weapons to compel the removal of the ruling class, and it has the organization, discipline, and technical capacity to implement the required environmental measures. The critical question is therefore: does it now have, or could it soon gain, the will to act as required?
Some insight into this question can be gained from a set of documents published in 2015 by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). These reveal that climate change has been fully acknowledged by the US military since at least 2007: “Climate change is real, serious, and inescapable, and its looming effects … may prove to be destabilizing on a massive scale.” The DoD also recognizes that climate-change tipping points pose an existential threat to humankind.
The other side of the coin is that the U.S. military has succumbed to mainstream mitigation, fails to see the Arctic meltdown as an extreme emergency, and perceives geoengineering exclusively as a potential threat by rogue actors. The fact that it is humankind’s only chance of survival is completely ignored.
The most encouraging revelation in these documents is that the military sees itself as representing the American nation – that is, the collective interests of the American people. Given the fact that the crisis will devastate this population, the military should logically intercede. The flip side is that it identifies strongly with the capitalist system and class. This is evident from its concern that an inadequate response to the crisis will stifle economic growth and undermine, “… the Western model of economic development and democracy”.
I conclude that the U.S. military has the capacity, but currently lacks the will, to depose the capitalist class and act decisively to salvage the biosphere. This volition could arise if, due to internal shifts or external pressures, it fully grasps the implications of its commitment to the American people. Whether similar comments apply to the militaries of other countries will require further research.
Above I offered a bare-bones explanation for the absence of an effective response to the ecological crisis: capitalist expansion would end, thereby robbing the capitalist class of its power and privileges. Here I deepen this explanation by providing a broad historical context for the observed inaction. I believe this provides useful insights into our current predicament.
As already discussed, ecological overshoot occurred in the 1950s when humankind’s accelerating economic activities began to violate natural limits. This event had a stunning implication: capitalism, as a growth-dependent system, had become historically obsolete. If the system ceased to expand, it would no longer be capitalism. If it continued to expand, it would destroy the biosphere and thus the physical foundation for its own existence. One way or the other, capitalism was doomed. It had encountered a historical dead end.
There is no question that the capitalist class was aware of this fact. Sporadic alarms about environmental degradation were raised by scientists even during the 1950s, and in 1965 an advisory committee that included industry experts presented a comprehensive warning to US President Lyndon Johnson. This document, Restoring the Quality of our Environment, described a wide range of environmental problems, including air pollution, soil contamination, agricultural wastes, and rising CO2 levels. The report noted that these problems would inevitably escalate with continued economic growth, and it presciently stated that higher CO2 concentrations could cause a global temperature increase of 4ºC. Thus, not only did Exxon know about global warming at this early date, everybody else did too.
Capitalism’s historical dead end confronted its ruling class with an unprecedented dilemma. It could surrender power and open the door to a sustainable economy, or it could retain power and accept the inevitability of ecological collapse.
The first option was intolerable because it meant the loss of social domination, reductions in status and prestige, and curtailment of the exceptional privileges enjoyed by any ruling group. The second option was far more palatable: although it implied a devastated biosphere and the likely extinction of humankind, it would allow this class to live out its remaining decades in the style to which it had become accustomed. Not surprisingly, this is the option that was chosen.
This fateful decision had two highly significant consequences. First, it abandoned the people to their ecological fate. The primary responsibility of any ruling class is to ensure the survival of its citizens, and this responsibility was decisively abdicated. This means that the trust we still place in society’s leaders to ensure our well-being is entirely misplaced.
Second, the capitalists and their supporters developed an elaborate set of deceptions to mask the ecological degradation and to conceal their inaction from the populace. This is the reason for the Great Crisis Reduction, mainstream mitigation, the contempt for geoengineering, the IPCC’s political role, and much more. These deceptions have been astonishingly successful in mystifying the concerned, thereby safeguarding the velvet suicide of the capitalist class.
As explained, the capitalist class has abdicated its responsibilities, and no other social entity has the capacity to rapidly implement an effective response. Military intervention is therefore necessary to salvage the biosphere.
In the scenario I envisage the military will seize political power, implement the required environmental measures, initiate the transition to a sustainable economy, and then transfer power back to a civilian group. To make this scenario more concrete, see this proposed public statement by the United States military soon after an imagined intervention has occurred in that country.
It is important to understand that the aim of military intervention is not military power, but the transfer of power from one civilian group to another. Unfortunately this shift cannot take place immediately because no civilian group is currently prepared to assume social and environmental leadership. But PONRs are imminent, so any delay could be fatal. The military must therefore assume power temporarily in order to give a sustainable group the time it needs to form and mature. As soon as the latter process is complete, civilian power can be restored.
Military intervention is no doubt an extreme and exceptional step, so I would like to offer several additional reasons why it now makes sense.
First, the military frequently provides humanitarian aid during natural disasters and other emergencies. Now that humankind is facing one of the most serious emergencies imaginable, it would be illogical and perverse to forgo its assistance.
Second, the military is currently loyal to the capitalist class, and could easily be persuaded to support fascist rule if popular resistance escalates during ecological decline. The intervention I propose would be part of a movement to shift military loyalties away from the capitalist class and towards the people, thereby averting this political tragedy. Such a reoriented military would also be far more likely than the current version to act in an enlightened manner on the global stage.
The third reason relates to the present historical juncture. In a period when the ruling class is serving the people’s interests, military intervention would be an appalling disruption of social life. But we don’t live in such a period. For over half a century we have lived in a world where the rulers have abandoned their citizens to an environmental nightmare. At such a time it would be tragic to ignore the possibility of a decisive military role.
Fourth, the rapid military implementation of an effective ecological response may be the only way to prevent nuclear war. International tensions will undoubtedly soar as glaciers melt, sea levels rise, and forests burn. Substantial progress towards a livable environment would be a major contribution to nuclear sanity.
In brief, the civilian world has demonstrated its current incapacity to address the ecological crisis. This leaves military intervention as the only possible short-term alternative. Although this authoritarian step is deeply regrettable, it is now an existential necessity.
The following is my environmental position, expressed as succinctly as possible.
Starting in the 16th century, expansionary capitalism replaced steady-state feudalism. In the 1950s the scale of humankind’s economic activities triggered ecological overshoot, which rendered capitalism obsolete. In response to this historical dead end the capitalist class decided to retain its power and to conceal its abdication of responsibility from the people. The result was a full-blown ecological crisis, with the climate and ocean emergencies requiring an immediate response. The manipulated civilian population is currently unable provide this, leaving military intervention as the only available alternative.
October 15, 2017