Saving the World by Making Us All Poor

Guardian writer George Monbiot claims that ‘Green growth’ doesn’t exist – less of everything is the only way to avert catastrophe. How does he propose bringing this change about?

It is simply not possible to carry on at the current level of economic activity without destroying the environment.

I would add that, since we expect the global population to continue to grow for the immediate future, it is not possible to carry on at the current level of economic activity. Two billion more people will require even more resources on top of those already being consumed by our current billions.

There is a box labelled “climate”, in which politicians discuss the climate crisis. There is a box named “biodiversity”, in which they discuss the biodiversity crisis. There are other boxes, such as pollution, deforestation, overfishing and soil loss, gathering dust in our planet’s lost property department. But they all contain aspects of one crisis that we have divided up to make it comprehensible. The categories the human brain creates to make sense of its surroundings are not, as Immanuel Kant observed, the “thing-in-itself”. They describe artefacts of our perceptions rather than the world.

Looking at any one aspect of the environment does provide a limited view. The gestalt however, is so complex as to be almost incomprehensible. Analyses is always easier than synthesis.

Nature recognises no such divisions. As Earth systems are assaulted by everything at once, each source of stress compounds the others.

This is an oversimplification, but there are certainly major interactions between different parts of the environment, some of which we almost certainly remain unaware of.

Take the situation of the North Atlantic right whale, whose population recovered a little when whaling ceased, but is now slumping again: fewer than 95 females of breeding age remain. The immediate reasons for this decline are mostly deaths and injuries caused when whales are hit by ships or tangled in fishing gear. But they’ve become more vulnerable to these impacts because they’ve had to shift along the eastern seaboard of North America into busy waters.

While the loss of this species would be a shame, the question of why right whales are dying out, and whether this reveals a danger to humanity as well, is a more important question.

Their main prey, a small swimming crustacean called Calanus finmarchicus, is moving north at a rate of 8km a year, because the sea is heating. At the same time, a commercial fishing industry has developed, exploiting Calanus for the fish oil supplements falsely believed to be beneficial to our health. There’s been no attempt to assess the likely impacts of fishing Calanus. We also have no idea what the impact of ocean acidification – also caused by rising carbon dioxide levels – might be on this and many other crucial species.

From the fossil records of past CO2 maxima, we know that acidification is very hard on animals that produce their shells from water born calcium, like shellfish and coral. The ocean survived the massive global warming that occurred in the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. The difference this time around, where expected warming is relatively less, is the rate at which the change is occurring. The PETM’s 5-8C warming occurred over a period of at least 20000 years.

As the death rate of North Atlantic right whales rises, their birthrate falls. Why? Perhaps because of the pollutants accumulating in their bodies, some of which are likely to reduce fertility. Or because of ocean noise from boat engines, sonar, and oil and gas exploration, which may stress them and disrupt their communication. So you could call the decline of the North Atlantic right whale a shipping crisis, or a fishing crisis, or a climate crisis, or an acidification crisis, or a pollution crisis, or a noise crisis. But it is in fact all of these things: a general crisis caused by human activity.

Loss of a whale species is not a crisis in itself. The important question is, is it a symptom of an ecological crisis in the entire ocean food web. That would be an existential threat to much of humanity.

Or look at moths in the UK. We know they are being harmed by pesticides. But the impact of these toxins on moths has been researched, as far as I can discover, only individually. Studies of bees show that when pesticides are combined, their effects are synergistic: in other words, the damage they each cause isn’t added, but multiplied. When pesticides are combined with fungicides and herbicides, the effects are multiplied again.

Bees are essential to food production, so of course they are being much more closely studied than moths, which are often pests when in their larval forms.

Simultaneously, moth caterpillars are losing their food plants, thanks to fertilisers and habitat destruction. Climate chaos has also knocked their reproductive cycle out of sync with the opening of the flowers on which the adults depend. Now we discover that light pollution has devastating effects on their breeding success. The switch from orange sodium streetlights to white LEDs saves energy, but their wider colour spectrum turns out to be disastrous for insects. Light pollution is spreading rapidly, even around protected areas, affecting animals almost everywhere.

If only moths are affected, this seems like a small loss. But are these moths part of a beneficial food web? For example, are they feeding bats that at other times are preying on disease transmitting mosquitoes?

Combined impacts are laying waste to entire living systems. When coral reefs are weakened by the fishing industry, pollution and the bleaching caused by global heating, they are less able to withstand the extreme climate events, such as tropical cyclones, which our fossil fuel emissions have also intensified. When rainforests are fragmented by timber cutting and cattle ranching, and ravaged by imported tree diseases, they become more vulnerable to the droughts and fires caused by climate breakdown.

Both coral reefs and rain forests are well studied ecosystems.

What would we see if we broke down our conceptual barriers? We would see a full-spectrum assault on the living world. Scarcely anywhere is now safe from this sustained assault. A recent scientific paper estimates that only 3% of the Earth’s land surface should now be considered “ecologically intact”.

By “intact”, you would presume that they mean not altered by humanity. This is not the case. The 3% figure is the amount of unaltered habitat that maintains the fauna that existed in it before humans arrived. I.e. the 3% is measuring pockets of extreme biodiversity. These are valuable, to be sure, but are only a tiny fraction of the wild areas that still exist.

The various impacts have a common cause: the sheer volume of economic activity. We are doing too much of almost everything, and the world’s living systems cannot bear it. But our failure to see the whole ensures that we fail to address this crisis systemically and effectively.

The reason that we have this volume of activity is that there are too many people. We are already systematically addressing this problem by decreasing birthrates throughout the developed world, and by bringing birth control and family planning to the third world. How can we do more to address overpopulation? By sterilization? Mass genocide? Neither option seems appealing.

When we box up this predicament, our efforts to solve one aspect of the crisis exacerbate another. For example, if we were to build sufficient direct air capture machines to make a major difference to atmospheric carbon concentrations, this would demand a massive new wave of mining and processing for the steel and concrete. The impact of such construction pulses travels around the world. To take just one component, the mining of sand to make concrete is trashing hundreds of precious habitats.

What kind of a lunatic would do this? We already have CO2 capture machines that don’t require steel or concrete. They’re called trees.

It’s especially devastating to rivers, whose sand is highly sought in construction. Rivers are already being hit by drought, the disappearance of mountain ice and snow, our extraction of water, and pollution from farming, sewage and industry. Sand dredging, on top of these assaults, could be a final, fatal blow.

Sand dredging of river deltas is essential to prevent them from silting up due to natural erosion. As long as fish habitat isn’t being destroyed, dredging seems like a minor issue when compared with disappearing snow packs.

Or look at the materials required for the electronics revolution that will, apparently, save us from climate breakdown. Already, mining and processing the minerals required for magnets and batteries is laying waste to habitats and causing new pollution crises. Now, as Jonathan Watts’s terrifying article in the Guardian this week shows, companies are using the climate crisis as justification for extracting minerals from the deep ocean floor, long before we have any idea of what the impacts might be.

Mining does indeed destroy habitat, but without the copper and lithium needed for electrification, we will continue to burn fossil fuels, which in Canada are also being mined on a massive scale from the Athabasca oil sands. This is a case weighing the costs and benefits and choosing the best option. I agree that the idea of unscrupulous corporations mining the ocean floor, doing who knows what damage to the oceans, is indeed frightening.

This isn’t, in itself, an argument against direct air capture machines or other “green” technologies. But if they have to keep pace with an ever-growing volume of economic activity, and if the growth of this activity is justified by the existence of those machines, the net result will be ever greater harm to the living world.

Growth is tied to population. Green technologies are unlikely to have significant impact on population. The average person does not justify their energy use by the existence of green technology. The average person assumes that the environment is someone else’s problem. As long as people blindly consume, the governments they elect will be ones that allow them to do so.

Everywhere, governments seek to ramp up the economic load, talking of “unleashing our potential” and “supercharging our economy”. Boris Johnson insists that “a global recovery from the pandemic must be rooted in green growth”. But there is no such thing as green growth. Growth is wiping the green from the Earth.

If economic growth is achieved by improved productivity, that is indeed good, and can be considered green growth. Growth that comes by increasing population (via immigration or lack of birth control) increases the load we’re putting on the planet and is bad.

We have no hope of emerging from this full-spectrum crisis unless we dramatically reduce economic activity. Wealth must be distributed – a constrained world cannot afford the rich – but it must also be reduced. Sustaining our life-support systems means doing less of almost everything. But this notion – that should be central to a new, environmental ethics – is secular blasphemy.

There are a few actions that can be taken to minimize the damage the load of too many people is doing to the earth. Those should be taken. Hopefully, technological advances like those that saved us from the Malthusian catastrophe predicted by Ehrlich in the sixties–for example, nuclear fusion–will help further reduce the need for fossil fuels. Eventually, global population will begin to decrease.

Holding up communist wealth redistribution as the solution won’t win you many friends. On the other hand, communists have certainly proven their ability to decrease populations. And so, we return to mass genocide. Hopefully, saner heads that Monbiot’s will prevail, and we won’t be off to the gulag any time soon.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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