I have written Saving the Future thinking about the steps that are urgently needed in order to save the future for our children and grandchildren.
Immediate action is needed to save the long-term future
Here is a recent statement by Jakob von Uexküll, founder of the World Future Council:
“Today we are heading for unprecedented dangers and conflicts, up to and including the end of a habitable planet in the foreseeable future, depriving all future generations of their right to life and the lives of preceding generations of meaning and purpose.
“This apocalyptic reality is the elephant in the room. Current policies threaten temperature increases triggering permafrost melting and the release of ocean methane hydrates which would make our earth unliveable, according to research presented by the British Government Met office at the Paris Climate Conference.
“The myth that climate change is conspiracy to reduce freedom is spread by a powerful and greedy elite which has largely captured governments to preserve their privileges in an increasingly unequal world.”
Similarly, 15-year-old Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, described our present situation in the following words:
“When I was about 8 years old, I first heard about something called ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’. Apparently, that was something humans had created by our way of living. I was told to turn off the lights to save energy and to recycle paper to save resources. I remember thinking that it was very strange that humans, who are an animal species among others, could be capable of changing the Earth’s climate. Because, if we were, and if it was really hap-pening, we wouldn’t be talking about anything else. As soon as you turn on the TV, everything would be about that. Headlines, radio, newspapers: You would never read or hear about anything else. As if there was a world war going on, but no one ever talked about it. If burning fossil fuels was so bad that it threatened our very existence, how could we just continue like before? Why were there no restrictions? Why wasn’t it made illegal?”
Why do we not respond to the crisis?
Today we are faced with multiple interrelated crises, for example the threat of catastrophic climate change or equally catastrophic thermonuclear war, and the threat of widespread famine. These threats to human existence and to the biosphere demand a prompt and rational response; but because of institutional and cultural inertia, we are failing to take the steps that are necessary to avoid disaster.
Only immediate action can save the future
Immediate action to halt the extraction of fossil fuels and greatly reduce the emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses is needed to save the long-term future of human civilization and the biosphere.
At the opening ceremony of United Nations-sponsored climate talks in Katowice, Poland, (COP24), Sir David Attenborough said “Right now, we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale. Our greatest in thousands of years. Climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon. The world’s people have spoken. Their message is clear. Time is running out. They want you, the decision-makers, to act now.”
Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General, said climate change was already “a matter of life and death” for many countries. He added that the world is “nowhere near where it needs to be” on the transition to a low-carbon economy.
Swedish student Greta Thunberg, is a 15-year-old who has launched a climate protest movement in her country. She said, in a short but very clear speech after that of UN leader Antonio Guterres: “Some people say that I should be in school instead. Some people say that I should study to become a climate scientist so that I can ‘solve the climate crisis’. But the climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions.”
She added: “Why should I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts when the most important facts clearly mean nothing to our society?”
Thunberg continued: “Today we use 100 million barrels of oil every single day. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground. So we can’t save the world by playing by the rules. Because the rules have to be changed.”
She concluded by saying that “since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.”
Our collective failure to respond adequately to the current crisis is very largely due to institutional inertia. Our financial system is deeply embedded and resistant to change. Our entire industrial infrastructure is based on fossil fuels; but if the future is to be saved, the use of fossil fuels must stop. International relations are still based based on the concept of absolutely sovereign nation states, even though this concept has become a dangerous anachronism in an era of instantaneous global communication and economic interdependence. Within nations, systems of law and education change very slowly, although present dangers demand rapid revolutions in outlook and lifestyle.
The failure of the recent climate conferences to produce strong final documents can be attributed to the fact that the nations attending the conferences felt themselves to be in competition with each other, when in fact they ought to have cooperated in response to a common danger. The heavy hand of the fossil fuel industry also made itself felt at the conferences.
Until the development of coal-driven steam engines in the 19th century humans lived more or less in harmony with their environment. Then, fossil fuels, representing many millions of years of stored sunlight, were extracted and burned in two centuries, driving a frenzy of growth of population and industry that has lasted until the present. But today, the party is over. Coal, oil and gas are nearly exhausted, and what remains of them must be left in the ground to avoid existential threats to humans and the biosphere. Huge coal and oil corporations base the value of their stocks on ownership of the remaining resources that are still buried, and they can be counted on to use every trick, fair or unfair, to turn those resources into money.
In general corporations represent a strong force resisting change. By law, the directors of corporations are obliged to put the profits of stockholders above every other consideration. No room whatever is left for an ecological or social conscience. Increasingly, corporations have taken control of our mass media and our political system. They intervene in such a way as to make themselves richer, and thus to increase their control of the system.
Polite conversation and cultural inertia
Each day, the conventions of polite conversation contribute to our sense that everything is as it always was. Politeness requires that we do not talk about issues that might be contrary to another person’s beliefs. Thus polite conversation is dominated by trivia, entertainment, sports, the weather, gossip, food, and so on, Worries about the the distant future , the danger of nuclear war, the danger of uncontrollable climate change, or the danger of widespread famine seldom appear in conversations at the dinner table, over coffee or at the pub. In conversations between polite people, we obtain the false impression that all is well with the world. But in fact, all is not well. We have to act promptly and adequately to save the future.
The situation is exactly the same in the mass media. The programs and articles are dominated by trivia and entertainment. Serious discussions of the sudden crisis which civilization now faces are almost entirely absent, because the focus is on popularity, ratings and the sale of advertising. As Niel Postman remarked, we are entertaining ourselves to death.
Further growth implies future collapse
We have to face the fact that endless economic growth on a finite planet is a logical impossibility, and that we have reached or passed the the sustainable limits to growth.
In today’s world, we are pressing against the absolute limits of the earth’s carrying capacity, and further growth carries with it the danger of future collapse. In the long run, neither the growth of industry nor that of population is sustainable; and we have now reached or exceeded the sustainable limits.
The size of the human economy is, of course, the product of two factors: the total number of humans, and the consumption per capita. Let us first consider the problem of reducing the per-capita consumption in the industrialized countries. The whole structure of western society seems designed to push its citizens in the opposite direction, towards ever-increasing levels of consumption. The mass media hold before us continually the ideal of a personal utopia, filled with material goods.
Every young man in a modern industrial society feels that he is a failure unless he fights his way to the “top”; and in recent years, women too have been drawn into the competition. Of course, not everyone can reach the top; there would not be room for everyone; but society urges us all to try, and we feel a sense of failure if we do not reach the goal. Thus, modern life has become a competition of all against all for power and possessions.
When possessions are used for the purpose of social competition, demand has no natural upper limit; it is then limited only by the size of the human ego, which, as we know, is boundless. This would be all to the good if unlimited industrial growth were desirable; but today, when further industrial growth implies future collapse, western society urgently needs to find new values to replace our worship of power, our restless chase after excitement, and our admiration of excessive consumption.
If you turn on your television set, the vast majority of the programs that you will be offered give no hint at all of the true state of the world or of the dangers which we will face in the future. Part of the reason for this willful blindness is that no one wants to damage consumer confidence. No one wants to bring on a recession. No one wants to shoot Santa Claus.
But sooner or later a severe recession will come, despite our unwillingness to recognize this fact. Perhaps we should prepare for it by reordering the world’s economy and infrastructure to achieve long-term sustainability, i.e.steady-state economics, population stabilization, and renewable energy.
Our responsibility to future generations and the biosphere
All of the technology needed for the replacement of fossil fuels by renewable energy is already in place. Although renewable sources supplied only 9 percent of the world’s total energy requirements in 2015 , they supplied 23 percent of ekectrical generation energy in 2016, and they are growing rapidly. Because of the remarkable properties of exponential growth, this will mean that renewables will soon become a major supplier of the world’s energy requirements, despite bitter opposition from the fossil fuel industry.
Both wind and solar energy can now compete economically with fossil fuels, and this situation will become even more pronounced if more countries put a tax on carbon emissions, as Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Costa Rica, the United Kingdom and Ireland already have done.
Much research and thought have also been devoted to the concept of a steady-state economy. The only thing that is lacking is political will. It is up to the people of the world to make their collective will felt.
History has given to our generation an enormous responsibility towards future generations. We must achieve a new kind of economy, a steady-state economy. We must stabilize global population. We must replace fossil fuels by renewable energy. We must abolish nuclear weapons. We must end the institution of war. We must reclaim democracy in our own countries when it has been lost. We must replace nationalism by a just system of international law. We must prevent degradation of the earth’s environment. We must act with dedication and fearlessness to save the future of the earth for human civilization and for the plants and animals with which we share the gift of life.
Here is what Greta Thunberg says about hope:
“And yes, we do need hope. Of course, we do. But the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then and only then, hope will come today.”