The media report on these crises as though they are all separate issues. They are not. They are inextricably entangled with each other and with the culture that causes them. As such, all of these problems have important commonalities, with major implications for our strategy to resist them.
These problems are urgent, severe, and worsening, and the most worrisome hazards share certain characteristics:
They are progressive, not probabilistic. These problems are getting worse. These problems are not hypothetical, projected, or “merely possible” like Y2K, asteroid impacts, nuclear war, or supervolcanoes. These crises are not “possible” or “impending”—they are well underway and will continue to worsen. The only uncertainty is how fast, and thus how long our window of action is.
They are rapid, but not instant. These crises arose rapidly, but often not so rapidly as to trigger a prompt response; people get used to them, a phenomenon called the “shifting baselines syndrome.” For example, wildlife populations are often compared to measures from fifty years ago, instead of measures from before civilization, which makes the damage seem much less severe than it actually is.67 Even trends which appear slow at first glance (like global warming) are extremely rapid when considered over longer timescales, such as the duration of the human race or even the duration of civilization.
They are nonlinear, and sometimes runaway or self-sustaining. The hazards get worse over time, but often in unpredictable ways with sudden spikes or discontinuities. A 10 percent increase of greenhouse gases might produce 10 percent warming or it might cause far more. Also, the various crises interact to create cascading disasters far worse than any one alone. Hurricanes (such as Katrina) may be worsened by global warming and by habitat destruction in their paths (Katrina’s impact was worsened by wetlands destruction). The human impact may then be worsened further by poverty and the use of the police, military, and hired mercenaries (like Blackwater)68 to impede the ability of those poor people to move freely or access basic and necessary supplies.
These crises have long lead or lag times. The problems are often created long before they become a visible issue. They also grow or accelerate exponentially, such that action must be taken well in advance of the crisis to be effective. Although an alert minority is usually aware of the issue, the problem may have become very serious and entrenched before gaining the attention, let alone the action, of the majority. Peak oil was predicted with a high degree of accuracy in 1956.69 The greenhouse effect was discovered in 1824, and industrially caused global warming was predicted by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius in 1896.70
Hazards have deeply rooted momentum. These crises are rooted in the most fundamental practices and infrastructure of civilization. Social convention, the concentration of power, and dominant economic systems all prevent the necessary changes. If I ran a corporation and tried to be genuinely sustainable, the company would soon be outcompeted and go bankrupt.71 If I were a politician and I banned the majority of unsustainable practices, I would promptly be ejected from office (or more likely, assassinated).
They are industrially driven. In virtually all cases, industry is the primary culprit, either because it consumes resources itself (e.g., oil and coal) or permits resource extraction and global trade that would otherwise be extremely difficult (e.g., bottom trawling). Furthermore, industrial capitalism and industrial governments offer artificial subsidies for ecocidal practices that would not otherwise be economically tenable. Factors like overpopulation (as discussed shortly) are secondary or tertiary at best.
They provide benefits to the powerful and costs to the powerless. The acts that cause these crises—all long-standing economic activities—offer short-term benefits to those who are already powerful. But these hazards are most dangerous and damaging to the people who are poorest and most powerless.
They facilitate temporary victories and permanent losses. No successes we might have are guaranteed to last as long as industrial civilization stands. Conversely, most of our losses are effectively permanent. Extinct species cannot be resurrected. Overdrawn aquifers or clear-cut forests will not return to their original states on timescales meaningful to humans. The destruction of land-based cultures, and the deliberate impoverishment of much of humanity, results in major loss and long-term social trauma. With sufficient action, it’s possible to solve many of the problems we face, but if that action doesn’t materialize in time, the effects are irreversible.
Proposed “solutions” often make things worse. Because of all the qualities noted above, analysis of the hazards tends to be superficial and based on short-term thinking. Even though analysts who look at the big picture globally may use large amounts of data, they often refuse to ask deeper or more uncomfortable questions. The hasty enthusiasm for industrial biofuels is one manifestation of this. Biofuels have been embraced by some as a perfect ecological replacement for petroleum. The problems with this are many, but chief among them is the simple fact that growing plants for vehicle fuel takes land the planet simply can’t spare. Soy, palm, and sugar cane plantations for oil and ethanol are now driving the destruction of tropical rainforest in the Amazon and Southeast Asia. Critics like Jane Goodall and the Rainforest Action Network argue that the plantations on rainforest land destroy habitat and water cycles, worsen global warming, destroy and pollute the soil, and displace land-based peoples.72 This so-called solution to the catastrophe of petroleum ends up being just as bad—if not worse—than petroleum.
The hazards do not result from any single program. They tend to result from the underlying structure and essential nature of civilization, not from any particular industry, technology, government, or social attitude. Even global warming, which is caused primarily by burning fossil fuels, is the result of many kinds of industries using many kinds of fossil fuels as well as deforestation and agriculture.