On the total failure of COP26, the inevitability of the collapse of western civilisation, and why uncompromising realism offers the only viable path towards a saner, sustainable world.
In the introductory chapters of my new book on plant/seaweed foraging, I make clear that I believe that climate change is unstoppable, that western civilisation is in the early stages of collapse and that the world is heading for the most serious food crisis in human history. I did not have space in the book to fully explain why I believe these things, so I am doing so here.
Almost thirty-five years ago, when I was 19, I went through a mental breakdown which had a profound effect on the subsequent course of my life. I was a science junkie who felt more at home alone in the wild than taking part in human society, and I closely followed the climate change debate from its beginning in the early 80s. By the end of that decade the nature and severity of the threat was clear, prompting me to get involved in politics. I was a member first of the Labour Party, then the Green Party. It soon became obvious to me that no political solutions were available – that it was impossible to reach an international agreement to stop climate change, because doing so would require both domestic and international political/economic compromises that nobody had any intention of making. In short, we’d have to really all be in it together, and we very obviously weren’t, and aren’t. Even if we could somehow rid ourselves of the anti-scientific climate change deniers, the political left and right would need to resolve their historic power struggle, or they’d stand no hope whatsoever of agreeing how the costs of stopping climate change should be borne. I reluctantly concluded that this would lead to the end of the world as we know it – to catastrophic climate change and the collapse of civilisation – at some point in my lifetime. I had nobody to talk to about this. There was no internet. My mental health deteriorated and I was diagnosed with “endogenous depression” – the sort which comes from within, rather than being caused by outside factors. It made no difference how hard I tried to explain to the psychologists and psychiatrists exactly which outside factors were responsible. I couldn’t get them to see the bigger picture, and they told me I was psychotic. Detached from reality. They put me in a psychiatric hospital, because I was a suicide risk, and gave me drugs which replaced the pain with meaningless nothingness. After a while I realised I had to choose between ending my own life and living out the rest of it one day at a time as a nihilist with no care for either my own future or that of the (human) world, both of which required me to get out of the hospital. Which meant I had to start lying to the doctors. I told them I’d had some time to reflect, and now things didn’t seem quite so bad, and they let me go home. As you will conclude from the fact that I am still here, I chose nihilism. I am no longer a nihilist. How I ended up not being a nihilist is too long a story to relate here, but I see no reason why I should continue to lie to people. The time has come for me to come out of the closet as a believer in collapse, not just anonymously on the internet, but in public as myself.
Deal with reality, or it will deal with you. That was the slogan of the “Life After The Oil Crash” (LATOC) website, which predicted in the early years of this century that the first big spike in oil prices due to global demand exceeding global supply would crash the global economy. The spike occurred in 2008, and the economy has been on life support (“quantitative easing”) ever since. Unfortunately for anybody hoping that civilisation as we know it can survive, QE isn’t sustainable either. If it is not stopped then the entire global fiat currency system will slide inexorably towards a hyperinflation that won’t end until our monetary system is radically reformed. (That inflation has already started, and right now the central bankers are telling everybody it is temporary. They’ve been saying the same thing about QE and ultra-low interest rates since 2008, and there’s no sign that either of them are going to end any time soon.) But if QE is stopped then the world will we be plunged into the deepest depression in financial history, as all the financial chickens in the world come home to roost at the same time. In both cases, we’re talking about an economic/monetary crisis the like of which the world has never seen. We’ve never had a globalised system of free-floating, electronically-traded fiat currencies before, so we have no examples of what happens when such a system is unsustainably debased. And yet there are grounds for real hope in this situation, along with the inevitable destruction of lives and businesses. There is no path towards a saner, sustainable world in the context of the existing economic/monetary system, and no political prospect of reforming it. The people currently running the world will do everything in their power to keep that system going for as long as possible. Its involuntary termination therefore offers a golden opportunity, at least for those with their eyes on the long-term future. Monetary reform is coming whether the rich and powerful like it or not. But in order to make the most of this opportunity, we need to start dealing with reality. We have a long way to go.
It was always a 100% certainty that the COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference (which ended yesterday) was going to be a total, unmitigated failure. By that I mean that after all those air miles racked up, and all that hot air expelled, the difference it will make to the net contribution of human beings to climate change by the time we actually stop changing the climate will be precisely nil. Why? Because the attendees of COP26 weren’t even discussing the sort of measures needed to make a significant difference to final, net climate change. Rather, they were discussing what the world’s political leaders believe they have some chance of delivering. They were discussing what they think they might be able to do, not what actually needs to be done, and the gap between these things is already enormous and getting wider all the time.
The primary cause of the current climate change is the burning of fossil fuels. It is the result of the movement of vast amounts of carbon from beneath the Earth’s surface back into the atmosphere from which it was photosynthetically extracted millions of years ago. The net amount of human-induced climate change by the time we stop changing the climate is therefore directly related to the total amount of carbon which has moved by the time we stop moving it, not the amount that has moved by an arbitrary date in the future. In other words, the only way we can reduce the final, total amount of human-induced climate change is to leave some of that carbon in the ground. If all we are doing is delaying its movement, rather than preventing it, then all we’re doing is delaying the resulting climate change, rather than reducing it. It makes no difference whatsoever how fast we move towards renewable energy, how many trees we plant, how many companies can claim to be “carbon neutral”, or how many people voluntarily give up flying or eating meat. All those things do is slow down the rate that some elements of the global economy are turning fossil carbon into atmospheric CO2. This decreases demand, so will have a negative effect on the market price of those fuels, which actually makes it easier for somebody else to buy and consume it. It may also extend the time available for the transition to renewable energy – it may allow us to string out our fossil fuel supplies for longer. This is a good thing, right? That’s certainly the impression most people are being given. Unfortunately, it’s a smokescreen. It has got absolutely nothing to do with what COP26 was supposed to be about, because it will not reduce or limit climate change at all. It’s not even far too little, far too late. It’s no relevant action at all, far too late.
What people at COP26 were really talking about was how to keep civilisation as we know it going for as long as possible. Reducing demand for fossil fuels is certainly a wise move if your goal is to prepare for a long-term decline in their supply. It’s precisely what LATOC was warning people about: we need to move to renewables to protect the existing economic/monetary system from what economists call “negative supply shocks” (we’re seeing one right now with global wholesale natural gas prices). We need to plant more trees so future generations of humans can view them as a resource…and chop them down. This is dealing with some serious issues caused by depletion of non-renewable resources, but makes no difference whatsoever to long-term emissions of CO2.
We need to be clear about why nobody at COP26 was talking about leaving fossil fuels in the ground. How could such a thing actually work? What needs to happen is for the countries which still have significant deposits of fossil fuels – including Saudi Arabia, Russia, Canada and Australia – to agree to stop extracting them. Does anybody seriously believe we can convince the Saudis to stop pumping oil, or the Australians to stop mining coal? How about getting Canada to shut down its hideously wasteful tar sands mega-operation? Even one of the most progressive nations on Earth – Norway – has made it crystal clear that it has no intention of stopping fossil fuel production. Norwegian politicians have repeatedly stated that changes must occur at the consumption end of the transaction, rather than anybody expecting them to stop extracting gas. And yet it could not be more obvious that if Norway continues to sell natural gas in an open, free, global market, then somebody will continue to buy and consume it. Us, probably, if we can afford it.
What could possibly motivate the fossil-fuel producers to stop producing? There is only one thing, and that is money. The rest of the world would have to pay countries like Saudia Arabia and Norway to leave their fossil fuels in the ground. There are two very obvious reasons why this isn’t going to happen. The first is that these countries are already among the richest in the world, and the second is that even if some sort of agreement could be reached, there is no means of preventing a future government of those countries from tearing up that agreement and extracting the fossil fuels anyway. What are we going to do? Keep paying them, forever, an infinite amount of money, in order to keep a finite amount of carbon in the ground?
There is only one other way to limit climate change: an affordable, industrial-scale means of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it underground (“carbon capture and storage”). Unfortunately, no such technology currently exists, and there’s no reason to believe it will be invented any time soon.
So to recap…
Fact #1: Our only technologically possible way to limit long-term human-induced climate change is to leave economically viable fossil fuels in the ground forever.
Fact #2: There is no conceivable political or legal mechanism that could motivate countries with economically viable fossil fuel reserves to leave them in the ground forever.
From these two facts, I am forced to conclude that we aren’t going to limit long-term human-induced climate change. We’re going to continue to extract and use fossil fuels until such time as it becomes economically unviable to continue, even though we know perfectly well that this is going to lead directly to catastrophic and irreversible climate change. And of course the discussion can’t end there, because it is already well understood, in the public domain, that climate change on a scale I’m talking about now will result in much of our planet becoming uninhabitable, the attempted mass-migration and/or premature deaths of billions of people, and the end of anything resembling capitalist “business as usual”. In terms of what I call “pre-collapse politics”, neither the right nor the left has any stomach for discussing this, for both are guaranteed to lose. That is why everybody engaged in pre-collapse politics continues to pretend that it is still possible to avoid this calamity. We still have time, they insist. It still “isn’t too late” provided we “act now”.
Of course there is a growing, and increasingly desperate, movement to actually provoke significant action. Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion are on the case, and pointing the finger at “our leaders”, and the super-rich. Don’t get me wrong – our leaders and the super-rich fully deserve to have fingers pointed at them, given that more than anybody else they might actually be able to do something to change the direction we are heading in. Unfortunately, the problem runs much deeper than that. The truth is that almost nobody is willing to make the sort of sacrifices that would make a difference to our ecological predicament. Everybody wants somebody else to make them, and that is why the politics is impossible. Can you imagine if Boris Johnson actually proposed the sort of policies needed to rapidly reduce the UK’s greenhouse emissions? Top of the list would be prohibiting cheap recreational air travel – or taxing it to the point where almost nobody can afford it. He could ration meat products, maybe. Or petrol. Or perhaps he could take a different path, and announce the building of several new nuclear power stations at choice spots on the British coastline. Can you imagine the reaction, from the political world, from business, and from the electorate? Right now it looks like the UK’s Conservative government can do almost anything and still walk the next election, including being openly corrupt, but I’m pretty sure that banning cheap air travel would be enough to propel the Labour Party into power.
Nobody wants to make the sacrifices. They don’t want governments to force them to make the sacrifices, and they won’t vote for politicians who propose them. And so we are urged to make those sacrifices voluntarily – to “do our bit” to save the planet. Right. I haven’t been on an aeroplane for 15 years, but now I’m supposed to stop using my car and and stop eating meat while absolutely fuck all is done to change The System and the super-rich compete with each other to offer the very-rich ten minute jollies into space. Why the hell should I give up relatively little things that actually make my life worth living, when I know perfectly well that it’s not going to make the slightest bit of difference to the final ecological outcome? For the good of my soul, perhaps? It’s the Tragedy of the Commons writ large. Garrett Hardin was right.
So where is the golden opportunity? Where are the grounds for hope? How is anything ever going to change?
Part of the answer is that COP26 might just mark the beginning of the end not of human-induced climate change, but of pre-collapse politics. “Act now or it is going to be too late” is a stale, impotent soundbite and must be widely recognised as so. It hasn’t worked for the last thirty years, it isn’t going to work now, and the time has come for it to change to “We did not act, now it is too late. Prepare to face the consequences.” And then we must explain precisely what it is too late for, and what the consequences are likely to be. So here goes.
It’s too late to prevent catastrophic climate change and too late to stop a mass extinction comparable to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. It’s too late to save globalisation and civilisation as we know it, and it’s too late to save billions of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Just in case that wasn’t clear enough: it’s too late to prevent the worst humanitarian catastrophe that there will ever be. This is reality, and one way or another, we are going to have to deal with it.
Yes, this message is frightening. It needs to be. “Act now or it will be too late!” is nothing like frightening enough, and far too easy to ignore. The new message, as well as having the advantage of actually being true, cannot be ignored. It has the power to transform the political landscape, and I believe that is exactly what is going to happen. Not overnight, of course. It will be fiercely resisted by all sorts of people who still have a stake in pre-collapse politics, and one response in particular needs to be dealt with straight away: “You can’t give up! You might be a defeatist, but I’m going to soldier bravely on!” This is an illegitimate attempt to claim the moral high ground. There is nothing ethically superior about denying reality because you don’t want to face the truth. There is nothing admirable about telling people that it isn’t too late when you don’t actually believe it yourself.
Collapse denial, like climate change denial before it, will not continue forever. It will eventually become so absurd that the dwindling band of deniers finally put a sock in it, and the debate can move on. This will be massive progress compared to the inaction of the last three decades, and it is the only way forward from where we are now, although the changes it will herald are of a sort that neither the pre-collapse left nor the pre-collapse right want to contemplate. There will be no glorious fight to defeat climate change and save 8 billion humans, and neo-liberal capitalism is not going to be “the end of history” What’s actually coming is a desperate fight for survival – an attempt by the majority of the global population to cling on to something resembling civilisation in their own community and their own country, to give them and their loved ones some sort of hope of being among the survivors of the apocalypse. There isn’t going to be any climate justice. Hardin was right about that too. There is no just way to decide which of the 8 billion survives and which do not, and even if there was then there is no government that would implement it. Those communities and countries which are fortunate enough to be in a location that will remain habitable even with several degrees of warming have the best chance. Being able to effectively defend their borders from the tsunami of climate refugees will also help. But neither of these things will suffice unless their economic/monetary systems are transformed to cope with net zero long-term growth. Any country which clings to pre-collapse growth-based politics and economics will face total collapse. Uncle Sam, I’m looking at you, and no I don’t secretly work for the Chinese Communist Party.
At this point we should recall that our dying monetary system was created unilaterally by the United States against the will of every other country on Earth. At the end of the Second World War, the US held about 75% of the world’s bullion reserves, having profited greatly from that war, and with its industrial infrastructure untouched, while most of Europe lay in ruins and bankrupt. The victors of that war agreed to implement a new monetary system (“Bretton Woods”) whereby the US dollar would be the currency of international trade (especially of oil), but that dollars would be directly convertible into gold. This convertibility was what kept the system honest, and nobody would have agreed to that system without it. Then, in 1971, the United States found itself in a spot of economic bother. The war it was losing in Vietnam was proving very costly, and US internal conventional oil production (excluding Alaska) had peaked and gone into decline. Countries were claiming their gold, and the US was looking at potentially having to part with its gold reserves in order to keep paying its bills. It was at this point that President Richard Nixon decided to unilaterally end the convertibility of dollars into gold – something he insisted was temporary. In reality it was permanent: Nixon had plunged the world into a new regime of completely fiat currencies, just at the time that electronic trading of money was taking off. This was how our monetary system was created – nobody designed it, and nobody agreed to it. It was imposed on the world by America, because America was unwilling to pay its debts under the internationally agreed Bretton Woods system. The new system, which has no official name because the powers that be don’t want people to understand it, is only viable as long as governments are not able to debase their currency at will instead of having to balance their books. Since 1971, this, along with keeping inflation under control, has been the official job of the world’s central banks. It was for this purpose that central banks were originally invented — to take the power of money creation out of the hands of sovereign powers, because sovereigns had such a bad historical record of debasing their currencies (more on this here if you are interested). Up until 2008 they were doing a passable job of both. Since 2008 they’ve failed totally on the money supply, and now they are failing on inflation. The existing monetary system is therefore heading towards an existential crisis, damned by inflation if QE continues and damned by depression if it doesn’t. Rather like the stagflation that followed the Nixon Shock in the 1970s, but much worse and with no way out.
The golden opportunity is the result of two important factors coming together. On the one hand we’ve reached a point where the political landscape is going to have to start shifting away from pre-collapse politics and towards a full recognition of the ecological calamity and societal collapse that’s hurtling towards us. We are entering a new era of collapse politics, and that opens up all sorts of new possibilities. And on the other hand, the monetary system that was created by the United States in 1971 is suffering a terminal malfunction, and when it is replaced the US will be in no position to unilaterally impose its will on the rest of the world. That means the new system will have to be negotiated with all of the major global players, and the outcome of those negotiations is absolutely critical to the future of our world. Real, meaningful, structural changes will happen. The world is going to have to fundamentally rethink money itself, and this time it must take account of the limits to growth. And when I say “must” I don’t mean it in a “we must act now or it will be too late” sort of way, where “must” means “ought to”. I mean that if the new system doesn’t take account of the limits to growth, then it won’t work. The existing system has malfunctioned because it is detached from physical reality, and nobody is going to be able to pretend otherwise.
Are we ready to take this opportunity? Because if we do not…if we just sit idly by and allow the plutocrats and oligarchs, the high priests of neoliberalism and the morally and intellectually bankrupt “mainstream economists” to devise a new monetary system in a bright and breezy room in Davos, with no input from the rest of the world, then they will create a new sort of feudalism. Civilisation will continue for the very rich and their hangers-on, while everybody else has to get used to a new reality where all hope is extinguished.
I am convinced that we can do better than that, but to make it happen there needs to be a widespread acceptance of two things. The first is that the political obstacles to limiting climate change are insurmountable and the second is that our monetary system is broken beyond repair. The process of replacing it may well offer the best opportunity we will ever get to lay foundations for a genuinely sustainable future civilisation to emerge from the smouldering wreckage of our own. If you’re interested in what this might actually mean in practice then I’d recommend the work of Swedish Anthropologist Alf Hornborg. The full text of a paper outlining some of his ideas (How to turn an ocean liner: a proposal for voluntary degrowth by redesigning money for sustainability, justice, and resilience) can also be found here.
I am not a defeatist. I have not given up. The future is not written. This is not the end of the story of humanity. It’s not even the beginning of the end. It’s only the end of the beginning.