“Don’t choose extinction”.
This was the simple advice oﬀered by a dinosaur in the UN’s CGI video message to global leaders. The question is whether any have the sense to heed it.
The chaotic upheavals surrounding Glasgow’s COP26 gathering suggest the message is not getting through fast enough.
To be fair, there were hopeful signs. Joe Biden deserves credit for his $3.5 trillion proposals underpinning a US
Civilian Climate Corps (with direct echoes of Roosevelt’s New Deal programme in the 1930’s). Britain could do with one too. Similarly, the coal phaseout may be slow, but it too is welcome.
UK intervention measures are inadequate and contradictory, but Boris Johnson was right to tell Leaders the planet is just “one minute to midnight” as we tick towards climate breakdown. And Prince Charles accurately told World Leaders that change itself must be put on a “war footing”.
The trouble is that most of the genuinely transformative thinking in Glasgow remained outside the conference, not inside.
Leaders congratulated themselves that 80% of countries are now committed to ‘net zero’ targets by 2050. But climate physics requires a 50% cut in CO2 emissions by 2030. It won’t wait for anything later. This target struggled to even get heard inside the conference chamber. To do so required global reformers to become transformers. Few have the vision or confidence to do so.
… and then there were none: the need for new dreams
In his book ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’, Yuval Harari argued that we live our lives according to the stories we believe in –
“In 1939 humans were oﬀered three global stories to chose from [fascism, communism and liberalism], in 1969 just two, in 1999 a single story seemed to prevail; in 2019 we are down to zero. No wonder the liberal elites, who dominated the world in recent decades, have entered a state of shock and disorientation… To be left without any story is terrifying. Nothing makes any sense.”1
This is what we’ve witnessed in COP26. Neoliberalism has collapsed. Naked, it wanders the corridors relying on politicians, whose loyalty it has bought, still saying how fine it’s clothing looks. But the delusion has died. What makes the spectacle so painful is that it’s death threatens to take millions with it. The world desperately needs another dream to live by.
Harari wasn’t the first to make the case that everlasting growth and unlimited consumption was doomed to fail. In 1972 the Club of Rome’s ‘Limits to Growth’ set out the ecological constraints we must live within. Political leaders took no notice.
In 2012, Jurgen Randers (one of the original contributors to ‘Limits to Growth’) wrote a follow up – ‘2052’ – detailing the physical and resource limits accelerating towards a world drunk on deregulation and disposable consumption2. This too was ignored.
- ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’, 2019, Yuval Noah Harari, Vintage Press, p14
- ‘2052 – A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years’, Jorgensen Randers, Chelsea Green, 2012
For almost 50 years the world has been wedded to growth policies that run dangerously ahead of the physical limits of the planet. ‘Limits to Growth’ warned that it would take humanity time to realise the problems of ‘finiteness’, time to accept it as real, time to come up with an alternative plan and time to deliver it. The longer this takes, and the longer we live in the ‘overshoot’, the worse the upheavals will be.
Living in the overshoot
Once in the overshoot, society only has 3 choices: managed decline, transformative change or inevitable collapse. Delay increases the likelihood of collapse. This is what makes 2050 targets so scary. Slowing down the rate at which we make things worse won’t help. In their diﬀerent ways, this is what Greta Thunberg, Prince Charles, XR and the dinosaur are telling us.
Perhaps it’s easier to look at the ‘overshoot’ in smaller slices. Overfishing could be tackled by banning the huge ‘fish factories’ out at sea and the destructive dredging of the sea bed. Or you could create more extensive marine protection zones and limit fishing licences to smaller boats.
The destruction of soil fertility could be reversed by banning agrochemical use, shifting to regenerative farming and developing more localised/seasonally-based food systems.
Transport priorities can shift from private to public, global to local, and from fossil-fuels to renewables. Airports could be given (reducing) annual carbon budgets to live within. Road subsidies could be redirected to rail, and carbon ‘border’ taxes could underpin more localised production.
And, if organised through the World Bank, a simple (fractional) tax on speculative money movements could give Developing Nations all the cash they need for survival/adaptation measures.
The trouble is that none of these options are tentative. None can wait for decades to come. None were agreed at COP26. And all require lifestyle changes that aﬀect rich nations as much as poor.
“1.5 to survive”: the circularity safety-net
Once we accept ‘finiteness’, GDP/growth obsessions look foolish or suicidal. Their place must be taken by a new politics (and economics) of reclamation, repair and redistribution. But it would be pure fantasy to think that what follows could just be a cleaner version of what we have now. Neither resources nor sanity permits it.
We cannot, for instance, stay within 1.5°C simply by everyone swapping today’s cars for EV’s. First there is the resource question.
For the UK alone, exchanging 31m vehicles for EV’s would require twice the world’s annual cobalt production, nearly the entire global supply of neodymium, three quarters of the world’s lithium and at least 50% of global copper production. The rest of the world wouldn’t entertain it and we couldn’t aﬀord it.
Besides, the answer to our existential crisis will not be found in a better quality of traﬃc jam. We have to re-think how we live and move, share and repair. This is where emerging ideas about the 15-minute town and 15-minute city come in. Clean transport has to be part of the answer, but so too do simplified lifestyles.
Much of this could be found in a blend of today’s technologies and yesterday’s legacies. Most of today’s pensioners were children in an era where refundable deposits (on lemonade bottles and the like) were the norm. For many, these were the best/only source of pocket money. Today, we could bar-code recyclable containers (both glass and plastic) and do the same. It is what Norway has been doing since 2005; now recycling over 95% of plastic containers.
In the era of our great grandparents, all energy companies were municipal (usually combining gas, water and electricity). Today’s smart technologies would allow us to do the same, using only renewable energy, storage and sharing. For a start, it would avoid the 50% energy losses at the power station (70% for nuclear) and open the prospects of redefining energy as a service, not a market.
The dreams we live by
All such changes are within our reach. But changes must now be transformative, not gradual. They require bold vision and heaps of courage; all the things we will need if humanity is to ride the climate roller coaster within a 1.5°C ‘speed limit’.
This isn’t just about changing policies. It means changing the dreams and norms we live by.
In his book ‘Collapse’, Jared Diamond looked at societies that failed to make it through their own seismic upheavals. He identified 5 factors that led to to collapse. We currently tick them all. Societies that saw the collapse coming, but could not avert it, all had leaders who couldn’t let go of the short-term obsessions that kept them in power.
Limitless growth, deregulated markets, the pursuit of (disposable) cheapness and human domination over nature are the modern myths that threaten our survival today. COP compromises will not be enough. We have to find new leaders and better dreams to live by. Even the dinosaur knows this.