The Three Most Dangerous Illusions


The Three Most Dangerous Illusions


Numerous illusions currently prevent the environmentally concerned from initiating the transformative changes required to effectively address the ecological crisis. Of these, three strike me as particularly significant because they have the widest reach and the deepest impact. These are the climate change illusion, which reduces the multifaceted problem of ecological overshoot to a single one of its components; the democratic illusion, which asserts that governments have sufficient power for the required economic reconstruction; and the business illusion, which equates business with capitalism. These myths and misconceptions serve to neutralize virtually everyone, across the political spectrum, who is troubled by humankind’s existential predicament. Below I address these illusions, starting with the definition of the crisis itself.


1. The Climate Change Illusion

This illusion actually has two parts. The first is the sharply reduced scope of the ecological crisis, as noted above. The second is the conflation of the terms “global warming” and “climate change”. Because the second part must be cleared up before I can address the first, I begin with this terminological muddle.

Both “global warming” and “climate change” have been used for decades to indicate the effects on the biosphere of increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. For just as long, however, the distinction between them has been ignored by journalists, commentators, and even some climate scientists. An explanatory article on the Skeptical Science website gets it right: global warming refers to the long-term trend of increasing average global temperature, whereas climate change refers to the changes in the global climate that result from this increase. Among these are altered precipitation patterns, increased prevalence of droughts, and heat waves. The article concludes: “Thus while the physical phenomena are causally related, they are not the same thing. … However, because the terms are causally related, they are often used interchangeably in normal daily communications.”[1] I suggest that “normal daily communications” are steeped in misconceptions and should be rejected as the standard for meaningful discussions by the environmentally concerned.

It is true that there is some overlap between the two concepts. Increasing temperature is one aspect of climate change, and is also part of the definition of global warming. Despite this, the terms differ conceptually and should be carefully distinguished, for three reasons. First, merging them erases the cause-effect relationship that is central to a scientific understanding of greenhouse gas effects. Second, the fact that much of the heat from global warming is stored in the oceans tends to be ignored or downplayed when the focus is on atmospheric climate effects. And third, because climate change is subject to significant natural variability, denialists can claim that a natural decline in its effects, such as a brief recovery of Arctic ice, means the end of global warming.[2] Let me now move to the first and more dangerous part of this illusion – the reduction of the ecological crisis to climate change (properly defined).

What has happened to the earth’s biosphere over the last half century is that humankind, through it ever-expanding economic activities, has violated multiple environmental limits. An appropriate term for this broad-based transgression of the biosphere’s capacity to absorb human impacts is ecological overshoot. However, the widespread acknowledgment of this reality could lead informed minds to seriously question the economic system that drives these activities. Because such questions would threaten the powerful, they have been actively suppressed. A key strategy used in this suppression is to reduce the perceived scope of the crisis to climate change. See the diagram below.


Climate change illusion
Here the overshoot crisis is represented by three of its major components: excessive greenhouse gases, habitat destruction, and the chemical and radiological toxification of the environment. In each case there are two representative sub-components. For greenhouse gases these are global warming and ocean acidification. Global warming has been further subdivided into surface ocean warming and climate change.

Note what is ignored when the ecological crisis is defined as climate change rather than overshoot: the ocean warming aspect of global warming, the ocean acidification aspect of excessive greenhouse gases, and two of the three major overshoot components – habitat destruction and toxification. For a different perspective, here’s a crude quantification. If all components and sub-components are weighted equally, then the environmental impact of climate change is 1/2 that of global warming, global warming’s impact is 1/2 that of excessive greenhouse gases, and the latter’s impact is 1/3 that of overshoot. Multiplying these fractions, the impact of climate change is 1/12 that of overshoot – about 8%. Thus, when people talk about the “climate change crisis”, they are taking into account less than 10% of the environmental disaster that is unfolding around them. This does not mean that climate change is a minor problem. On its own it unquestionably poses an existential threat, but it nevertheless represents only a small fraction of the overall environmental problem that we and millions of non-human species now face.

The diagram shows that the practical effect of this extreme scope reduction is to divert attention away from the required economic transformation and towards energy measures such as higher efficiencies and the shift to renewables. But as I explain more fully here, overshoot can be reversed only through wholesale economic reconstruction that achieves rapid impact reduction. This entails swift decreases in per-capita consumption and population as well as swift increases in ecological efficiencies. Energy measures by themselves will not only fail to reverse overshoot, they cannot resolve the climate crisis. Without the accompanying decreases in consumption and population, such measures are hopelessly inadequate to the task.

The main reason why climate change was chosen to represent the ecological crisis is that it can to a limited degree be addressed through efficiencies, which are to a limited degree compatible with capitalism. As a growth-dependent system, capitalism cannot reduce consumption and population without triggering a severe economic crisis. However, its technological innovations and competitive nature can result in higher efficiencies so long as these are profitable. Climate change thus gives the system’s supporters a superficially plausible story to tell about its potential sustainability. Through their control of the media and the environmental community’s unwitting support they have transformed this threadbare story into a compelling tale that is now widely accepted. As with sausages, it’s disgusting but enlightening to see how illusions are manufactured.


2.  The Democratic Illusion

Scientists, progressives, environmentalists, and many others have for decades pleaded with the world’s governments to muster the political will to act decisively on the environment. Governments have consistently failed to comply, but the pleading continues. Why is this so? If something repeatedly fails to work, intelligent people generally look for reasons and seek alternatives. Why has this not happened with respect to governments and the environment? The answer is that virtually everyone is under the spell of the democratic illusion – the false belief that a society’s populace holds political power and expresses this power through its elected representatives.

In one way this belief is quite extraordinary. Anthropologists routinely report that a ruling class dominates the societies they study. Traditional conservatives have for centuries insisted that universal suffrage is a smokescreen for rule by the few. And history makes it absolutely clear that the ruling landowners in Europe’s feudal societies were replaced not by the industrial populace, but by the capitalist ruling class.

In another way, however, the belief in popular sovereignty is completely understandable. The central principle for any ruling class is to deny its own existence. Power that is not perceived will not be challenged. In today’s world this perspective is constantly reinforced by the media, and is relentlessly drilled into young minds from elementary school to university. Thus, all that most of us know is the endlessly repeated mantra that we the people are in charge, and that government and its agencies are the instruments of our power. When a key character in the 1998 movie, The Truman Show, was asked why Truman had not discovered the true nature of his world, he perceptively replied that, “We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that.” [3] Beyond the movie realm, we are all presented with a world of popular sovereignty, and we therefore accept the democratic illusion without question. It is indeed as simple as that.

The diagram below depicts, in highly simplified form, the actual structure of power in a capitalist society. (For a more detailed diagram and further discussion on this topic, see my Political Primer.)


Democratic illusion 2


As shown, the populace elects a government, which allows people to express their concerns and press for limited changes. However, both the populace and its government are decisively controlled by the ruling class, which is where political power actually resides. Most of the ideas we express, the tasks we perform, the products we crave, and the goals we chase arise not from our impenetrable souls, but from the political and economic requirements of this powerful group. Its members have for centuries molded us and our societies into forms that suit their expansionary aims. Until this humbling reality is fully accepted by the environmentally concerned, any progress beyond carbon taxes and the like will remain an impossible dream.

The two illusions discussed so far are perfectly illustrated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). One pertinent question is this: why was the organization not called the Intergovernmental Panel on Ecological Overshoot instead? In 1988, when the IPCC was established, there was already compelling evidence that humankind faces a wide-ranging environmental challenge, not just climate change.   Nevertheless, this single aspect of the problem was chosen, and today most concerned people restrict their thinking and initiatives to the climate change problem. It would be naive to think that there is no connection between the two.

The second question is why the IPCC has an “intergovernmental” structure. This is clearly based on the assumption that government is society’s ruling force, and can therefore introduce policies that are adequate to the climate problem. But this assumption is a product of the democratic illusion. A government can, given sufficient pressure from below, persuade the ruling class to institute various efficiency measures.   It cannot, however, persuade this group to institute all technically feasible measures because this would cut unacceptably into profits, and it certainly cannot persuade the class to reduce consumption and population because this would contradict the system’s expansionary logic.

The IPCC, in brief, has a mandate that addresses only a fraction of the ecological crisis, and a structure that cannot achieve the fractional mandate it has. Although its scientists deserve immense credit for their heroic and tireless efforts, the organization itself is the product of two illusions that gravely threaten the biosphere’s future.


3.  The Business Illusion

The climate change and democratic illusions share an important attribute: they are both misdirections by the ruling class intended to manipulate the populace. As in a magic trick, the first illusion shifts popular attention from overshoot to climate, and the second shifts attention from rulers to government.[4] These two illusions thus affect the political center and left more than the right, which is closer to the ruling group and to some degree understands the tricks that are being performed. The business illusion is different because it affects the ruling class and its supporters as well. The political right is deluding not just others but also itself when it insists that business and capitalism are inseparable, and that capitalism must therefore be retained to keep private enterprise alive. I would first like to discuss the roots of this illusion, and then to suggest reasons why it is so fervently embraced by the right.

The business illusion is based on two historical misconceptions. The first is that capitalism has been around for thousands of years because humankind has engaged in commercial activities for that long. The second is that the necessary conditions for capitalist economies have long been present, and will continue to be present into the indefinite future.

I encountered the first misconception at university. An ultra-conservative economics professor excitedly told me that capitalism has existed for at least five thousand years because business was common among the ancient Mesopotamians. This is not true because there is a clear distinction between business and capitalism. Business simply refers to commercial activities – that is, private production and exchange for profit. The Mesopotamian economy was at least partly business-oriented in that it featured private land holdings and banks that facilitated commercial transactions. Such institutions and activities have been present in numerous economies since that time. Business flourished in medieval Europe, and of course it continued under capitalism. What the latter refers to is not just business, but business in a rapidly expanding economy where the business class exerts political power over workers who have been stripped of their land, buildings, and tools. This set of social arrangements uniquely describes the past 500 years and is the hallmark of the current economy.

The professor’s aim, however, was not to give me a history lesson, but to convince both himself and his student that capitalism is a permanent and inevitable feature of human civilization. To illustrate the extent of his misconception, look at this depiction of the actual historical situation:


Business illusion 1


Given the professor’s correct statement that commerce was first part of the Mesopotamian economy, business began around 3000 BC. It continued for the entire pre-capitalist period under more or less steady-state conditions. Then it erupted under capitalism, which has lasted for about 500 years despite the ecological crisis it precipitated (see below). If humankind survives, business will in all likelihood continue for many centuries more in the steady-state, post-capitalist future. This is obviously not a picture you will see in a standard economics text. It shows that business and capitalism are not only distinct, but that capitalism has been in existence for only about 10% of the time that business has been an integral part of human economies. It also indicates the unspeakable but unavoidable truth: the system is at the end its historical tenure, and beyond it there could be a long-term future for post-capitalist business.

To summarize: capitalism requires business, but business does not require capitalism, and the two must be conceptually and historically distinguished.

Let me now move to the conditions required for the existence of a capitalist economy. Two are critical for its inception. One is an adequate level of technological development. Medieval production was restrained not only by feudal social relations, but also by the lack of machines, chemicals, and energy sources required for manufacturing. It was not until scientific and technical developments made these available that capitalism and its dynamic expansion became realistic possibilities. The second condition was an adequate supply of environmental resources: ample wood, fertilizers, coal, and iron to satisfy the system’s material requirements, plus clear skies and clean streams to absorb its massive waste flows. This condition was fully satisfied in the pre-industrial era, especially after Europe’s colonization of the Americas. Thus, when the technology was sufficiently mature, the system awaited only its subjective element: the ambitious and energetic business people who seized the opportunity to create a more productive economic system.

But just as environmental integrity was a condition for capitalism’s birth, it was also a condition for the system’s continued existence. Once the material wealth was largely depleted and the environmental sinks were full, the system had run its course and was ripe for historical replacement. As shown in the diagram below, capitalism thus has a very restricted historical window.


Business illusion 2


The upper graph shows that the technical threshold was reached around 1500. Because the environment was not a constraint and eager entrepreneurs were champing at the bit, capitalism was born during this period. Although technological advances skyrocketed under capitalist influence, the environment steadily deteriorated. Referring to the lower graph, in the 1950s the atmospheric CO2 level leaped above its long-term maximum, signalling the leading edge of ecological overshoot. This means that, after 450 years, one of the two essential conditions for the system’s existence had disappeared, and a sustainable replacement had to be urgently introduced. The fact that this step was not taken is the reason for today’s existential crisis, and a key reason for this omission was the business illusion. If capitalism and business had been correctly perceived as economically distinct, it would have been far easier for ruling-class minds to envision a post-capitalist, post-expansionary, business-oriented economy.

At this point, however, sympathy with the capitalist class is in order. The shift from an expansionary to a contractionary economy is the kind of sharp discontinuity that has historically been achieved through revolution, not internal transformation. There appears to be no precedent for the immense changes that today’s ruling classes must now spur and undergo. It should also be noted that human nature is consistent with expansion rather than contraction, and that capitalism fought a twilight battle with socialism in the 20th century. The latter in particular haunts conservatives, many of whom reflexively see any alternative to capitalism as the devil of socialized production and totalitarian control.

A restrained form of sympathy is also warranted because the ruling capitalists have not been provided with the theoretical and strategic guidance needed for them to move into a new stage of history. Restraint is appropriate because they themselves are responsible for discouraging independent thought over the last fifty years in order to buttress their power and amplify their privileges. Despite this self-inflicted wound, they are the only conceivable agents of transformative change and should therefore be provided with the intellectual help they need.

And here I can only express amazement that so few of my fellow thinkers have disdained the obstacles and taken the plunge. Where are the academic mavericks who will improve my initial attempt at a post-capitalist economic theory? [5] Where are the gifted young who will develop the political framework for a post-expansionary society? Where, in short, are the heretical courage and piercing imagination that will shred the illusions described here and salvage our beleaguered biosphere? Seven billion human beings and perhaps ten million non-human species anxiously await your response.


[1] See (emphasis added). After reviewing my books on this topic, including two by outstanding climate scientists James Hansen and Michael Mann, I found that only Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers makes the distinction. He says: “Greenhouse gases are a class of gases which can trap heat near Earth’s surface. As they increase in the atmosphere, the extra heat they trap leads to global warming. This warming in turn places pressure on Earth’s climate system, and can lead to climate change.” (p. 19)

[2] The muddle is even more serious than described here. “Global warming” refers exclusively to the earth’s surface warming. It therefore ignores the heat that is stored deep in the oceans and is not yet interacting with the climate system. There appears to be no common term for the total warming resulting from the planetary energy imbalance induced by greenhouse gases. It would be useful to introduce a term such as “planetary warming” for this purpose. Then global warming would be the component of planetary warming that is currently causing climate change, and the remaining planetary heat would be in the pipeline for future global warming and climate change.

[3] In this intriguing film Truman Burbank lives from birth in a gargantuan television studio that constitutes his entire universe. Millions of people around the world watch him daily on a program called The Truman Show, until he finally grasps the reality of his situation and escapes. The movie anticipates the scourge of reality shows, but its true significance is that it incisively examines the extraordinary potency of deception, propaganda, and social control in general. As well, it indicates that subtle but visible clues about a society’s political structure should not be ignored, but should instead be mentally processed and then acted on. The IMDB entry provides extensive quotes from the movie, including the one in the text.

[4] The topic of misdirection is scientifically investigated in a unique book on magic by two academics. See Stephen L. Macknik and Susan Martinez-Conde, Sleights of Mind (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2010). In summarizing their findings the authors conclude that our brains are easily fooled through various methods, but that, “… one stands above all others in explaining the neurobiology of magic – the spotlight of attention.” (p. 256) Misdirection, as in the climate change and democratic illusions, shifts this spotlight away from areas that can threaten power and privileges, and towards areas of relative safety for the powerful.

Perhaps the book’s most piquant insight is that educated people are especially vulnerable to the deceptions used in magic. In explaining why many scientists were taken in by Uri Geller’s spoon-bending tricks a few decades ago, the authors quote computer scientist and amateur magician Danny Hillis: “The better the scientist, the easier it is to fool them. Scientists are honest people. They don’t know how low magicians will stoop and are not trained in deliberate deception.” (p. 35) In other words, people’s positive attributes can be used against them in pulling off magic tricks and, by extension, in diverting them from ecological, economic, and political realities. George Orwell made a similar comment in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “… those who have the best knowledge of what is happening are also those who are furthest from seeing the world as it is. In general, the greater the understanding, the greater the delusion: the more intelligent, the less sane.” (George Orwell, Animal Farm and 1984 (Orlando, Harcourt Inc., 2003), 291.

[5] This refers to the Economics of Needs and Limits, or ENL. The conceptual framework is outlined here and fully presented in this book.

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