Herbert, F. (Ed.), New World or No World

New World or No World, Ace, New York, 1970.

Four and a half decades ago, in 1970, Frank Herbert, author of the Dune novels, edited a book with the above title. It was by no means the first nor was it the only book devoted to the pressing need for radical change. In fact such works certainly number in the thousands, to say nothing of the films, TV documentaries and countless websites. But they have all counted for nothing because the end of our settled world is plainly in sight and we have collectively failed to respond to the challenges that so many have foreseen.

At the time of writing (the weekend before Christmas 2008) two news items from the previous week stand out. The first is that the Rudd government released its plans to control carbon emissions. Instead of going for the kind of serious reductions that would change behaviour, re-orient systems and demonstrate the kind of leadership that the world plainly leads, we learned that Australia’s target for CO2 reductions by 2020 was to be a mere 5%. Big business was delighted, the more so since some of the heaviest polluters were now to receive generous funding via the sale of carbon credits so that they could continue much as before. To say that the broad coalition of environmental groups and informed observers was disappointed is an understatement. Despite a growing international consensus that the cuts would have to be far deeper to avoid catastrophic global consequences, the government had appeared to go back on its election promises with a strategy that was merely political and fell far short of what was needed.

In one way you could not blame Rudd and his advisors. The prospect of achieving radical broad-based changes in the time available was always going to be exceptionally difficult. The world is, in fact, faced with a near impossible task – to achieve agreement among all players, both rich and poor, to decisively step away from the growth dynamic that has powered civilisation for centuries and basically re-conceive its relationship to the world. As noted, the need for so doing has been aired many, many times by intelligent observers all over the world. Yet those who have questioned the growth dynamic and its associated impacts have either been ignored or silenced. The notion of halting growth is anathema to those powerful interests whom it has served; and not merely to them. Everyone, whether consciously or not, wants more – more for their kids, more gadgets for their home, more expensive holidays, more superannuation for their older year, a larger yacht. Very, very few people have seriously considered the global consequences because the links between their own specific and local lives and global systems have been unclear.

There are three main reasons. First, these links seem remote from everyday life. Most of them are, after all, invisible to the naked eye. Second, the entire chain of linkages has only become clear fairly recently as science has not only elucidated the details but new fields (such as systems theory) have emerged that help us put the pieces together. Third, the cumulative effect of human impacts on the global environment had seemed either unimportant or manageable – that is until the science was ‘in’. Now science continues to amplify the warnings articulated over decades. It is telling us that the human experiment faces its biggest challenge in history because human societies, in their rush for affluence and growth, have quite simply overreached themselves. Why? The fundamental reason is that for every increment of growth in the human economy (seen as ‘good’) there has been a corresponding diminution of shared natural capital (which has seldom been valued at all, especially by economists). Now that ‘crunch time’ has finally arrived the whole process looks more and more like a true Faustian bargain.

The second news item that caught my attention last week reported on a meeting held at Exeter University, UK, during the (northern) summer. A climate researcher reported that ‘carbon emissions were soaring way out of control (and that) the battle against dangerous climate change had been lost.’ He’d apparently hoped that someone in the audience would contradict him, but that did not happen. Instead, the article went on, ‘the cream of the UK climate science community sat in stunned silence as Anderson pointed out that carbon emissions since 2000 had risen much faster than anyone had thought possible.’ Consequently, ‘he said that it was now “improbable” that levels could be restricted to 650 parts per million (PPM)’. At this level ‘the world would face a catastrophic 4C average rise.’ If that is correct then we are certainly looking at the end of the world as we know it. Humanity is in for a very rough ride indeed and much sooner than anyone had expected.

Enter Mark Lynas and his book Six Degrees.[1] Lynas looked at the evidence for likely changes as global temperatures rose. The message I took from the book was that 2C was about as far as we could go and even that was extremely risky. Indeed, this and other recent work suggests that the ONLY safe path is for humanity to act in concert to bring the CO2 level down from its current levels toward those that obtained two or more centuries ago. Over two degrees and the Earth will revert toward states it only saw in the very distant past, states that would drive humanity away from low-lying areas, eliminate croplands, raise the sea level by many metres and initiate yet another wave of species extinctions. As the progression continues, various ‘feedback effects’ such as accompany the melting of sea ice and the release of methane from previously frozen tundra will accelerate the process. It is for such reasons that earlier projections that appeared to give humanity more time always undershot the likely outcomes. The question the author asks is whether there’s a way to turn our society around. This is the same question that’s been posed for a long time and left unaddressed by all except a dissenting minority. It is an historically unprecedented task.

There is a tantalising glimpse of hope in all this. Were we to collectively ‘wake up’ and truly understand the devastating and diminished future that the human species has itself created, would we collectively choose to create a different, low impact and (implicitly here at least) post-materialist culture? It seems highly unlikely since we not only have centuries of ‘bad habits’ and misperceptions to overcome in a few short years, but also impulses buried deep in the human psyche that are only partly accessible to reason and control. Moreover, some members of the ‘human family’ stand in complete opposition to the rest of us in that they care nothing for these issues. Few of the accounts that I’ve seen have factored in the very active and damaging role of what I call ‘the spoilers’. By which I mean the agencies that persuade young men that it is honourable to wear a suicide vest of drive a car bomb, the ‘black economy’ driven by international criminal syndicates, to say nothing of currently militaristic and failed states.[2]

If the world was at peace then I think we’d at least have a chance to re-orient everything under the absolute pressure of the survival imperative. But in our fractured and conflicted world, with so many countries and their erstwhile ‘leaders’ continuing to play out ancient games of dominance and submission within shrinking areas of freedom, I think we have a near impossible task. Like the climate researcher mentioned above I would love to be wrong about this.

It was HG Wells who, in the first half of the 20th Century, suggested that humankind was in ‘a race between education and catastrophe’. Now the terms of that race have finally emerged. The need to change course is more compelling than ever before in human history – and ever less likely to occur.

Richard Slaughter

22nd December, 2008

[1] Lynas, M. Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, Harper, London, 2008.

[2] I deal with this issue in Chapter 5: Confronting the collective shadow, The Biggest Wake-Up Call in History, Foresight International, Brisbane, 2010.