This is the second of two posts that address the question: Why do the environmentally concerned continue to support the IPCC despite its objective failure? In my first post I said that various manipulations have been used to achieve this end. The most important of these was the creation of a false choice between the IPCC and the absurdities of climate denialism, which made this support almost inevitable. In this post I briefly discuss the role of material interests in bolstering IPCC support among the global rich. I then identify some key implications of these roadblocks to a sustainable world.
“Material interests” here refers to the motivations that derive from the natural human desires for consumption, comfort, security, etc. It excludes both inordinate greed and ethical concerns. The term thus denotes the core tendencies we all share due to our biological constitutions. By “global rich” I mean those whose material satisfactions substantially exceed the global average. This includes the large majority in the rich countries and a small minority in the poor countries. For brevity I shorten these terms to “interests” and “the rich”.
In a nutshell, my argument is this: sustainability conflicts with the interests of the rich, the IPCC is a strong voice against sustainability, and the rich are therefore motivated to support the organization. Note that, consistent with the above definitions, this argument assigns no blame. It simply points out that, if the rich are to forsake the IPCC and its ecocidal strategy, they must overcome not just the manipulations imposed from without but also the interests gnawing from within.
My claim that sustainability conflicts with rich-world interests is based on the following logic: The biosphere is currently in critical condition due to the over-expansion of the global economy. This means the economy must rapidly contract. But two of the three ways to achieve this end – efficiency improvements and population reductions – can be implemented only gradually. Therefore, contraction must initially be achieved through the only remaining option: consumption reductions. However, the poor cannot decrease their consumption without morally repugnant consequences, so this burden must be borne by the rich.
To make this conclusion more concrete, here are some rough numbers. The per-capita ecological footprint of the rich, on average, is 5 global hectares. The sustainable per-capita footprint, at current population levels, is 1.7 hectares. Thus, to reach sustainability, the rich must reduce their consumption by about two-thirds. This fraction applies to much of the E.U, but it is higher for North America and lower for the Asia-Pacific countries.
The scale of these reductions indicates that the conflict between sustainability and interests doesn’t just exist, it is extreme: the rich will have to make deep-cutting lifestyle adjustments for a viable future. Their strong resistance to such changes, whether overtly expressed or deeply internalized, is inevitable.
Why do I say that the IPCC is a strong voice against sustainability? As noted in my last post, the organization’s response to the GHG crisis is virtually identical to the ecocidal BAU (business-as-usual) position. The only difference is that the IPCC is more aggressive regarding efficiency improvements. What is significant is that this shared stance rejects both population and consumption reductions as solutions. Without these reductions, however, rapid contraction is impossible. Therefore, given its inflated public stature, the IPCC is a powerful social force working against the shift towards a sustainable economy.
Briefly stated, the IPCC allows the rich to have their cake and eat it too. They can feel environmentally principled because they side with the organization rather than the deniers, and they can continue to consume at high levels based on its BAU-like response. From this perspective, then, the IPCC is an instrument of the rich for prolonging their unsustainable lifestyle as the biosphere founders.
Before proceeding I want to ensure that my criticism of the IPCC is not misconstrued as an undifferentiated attack on all the individuals involved. In the public image of the IPCC, which was initially mine as well, the organization is a scientific monolith that objectively analyzes and reports on the GHG crisis. However, my experience in reading the IPCC reports and watching its members speak and lecture has told me a more nuanced story. Aside from the bureaucrats who form the IPCC Secretariat, the organization comprises three main groups: competent scientists, ideological economists, and weak strategists.
The scientists, despite producing some conservative results, do an outstanding job of researching the effects of increasing GHG levels on the global environment. They’re not the problem. The trouble starts with the economists, who are clearly there to ensure that any proposed solution is consistent with capitalist logic and thus BAU interests. The trouble continues with the strategists, who are drawn from the other groups. These people lack historical perspective, understand little about political reality, and slavishly follow the economists in formulating their responses. My criticism of the IPCC, therefore, is aimed primarily at its economists and the strategists who write the Mitigation report for Working Group III.
In his foreword to Making Climate Change History (2017), environmental historian Paul Sutter says, “One of the most perplexing historical questions we face in relation to climate change is why, despite an overwhelming scientific consensus on its human causes that is decades old, the world community has been so unresponsive to the emerging crisis.” Unfortunately the book fails to seriously consider this question, but the answer should now be obvious: in the rich world, where the power to make or dismiss fundamental change resides, there are no immediate material benefits to a rational response. This has several deep and far-reaching strategic implications.
First, it means that the motivations to spur the necessary transformation must come from the ethical rather than the material domain. Marx and Lenin could direct the anger of a brutalized working class into revolutionary channels, but this visceral source of energy is now absent. It thus appears that the only escape from our ecological predicament is for a critical mass of well-placed individuals to summon their sense of duty, responsibility, honor, and morality, and then do the right thing.
It is important to note that “the right thing” will entail highly disruptive political changes. The BAU supporters cannot remain socially dominant while centuries of economic expansion are reversed and a post-capitalist economy is constructed. This is why the current talk about “policy changes” to tackle the GHG crisis is delusional. The rational response cannot be implemented as a set of policies within the prevailing order, but will instead require a political order of a radically different kind.
The second implication of the rich world’s interests is that the transition to sustainability will unavoidably be authoritarian. Even if enough influential heroes arise to spearhead the economic transformation, the social majority will cling tenaciously to their material advantages. They must therefore be strictly disciplined to accept a sustainable mode of life. Achieving this in the most humane fashion possible will be a critical challenge for the new rulers.
As an aside, this answers the pessimists who insist that reduced consumption is prevented by human nature, and collapse is therefore inevitable. They’re right about our innate propensities, but this is precisely why these cannot be permitted free rein. If our passions forge our fetters (Edmund Burke), then the fetters must remain in place until the passions have been sufficiently moderated.
A final point: global ecological overshoot is an unprecedented event not just in the history of capitalism or civilization, but in the entire lifespan of our species. Never before has humankind had to consider that the Earth is finite and that our biological impulses, which brought us to this point, must be tamed and redirected. Among these impulses, perhaps the most significant is our desire for social inclusion, which spawns the powerful tendency to submit to conventional thought and action – to “go along to get along”. This pervasive compliance is now a death trap. Our survival depends on truly independent minds and fiercely iconoclastic souls. The IPCC is only one of many idols that must soon be ruthlessly shattered.
April 21, 2018
Minor edits: Dec. 18/18