Last Monday (November 13), a group of over 15,000 scientists issued “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice.” In most quarters, this notice was received politely and has already faded from the news cycle. One researcher complained about the “scaremongering” of the scientists, but much worse was the general silence — a kind of collective yawn — about what the “second notice” says and what we might do.
The key aspect of the warning missed by most reports, was that it suggested that we face limits to economic growth. Here are some salient points.
1. THIS IS THE SECOND NOTICE. The first notice was in 1992 and was signed by 1575 scientists, including over half of the then-living Nobel Prize laureates. The first notice said pretty much the same thing as the second notice. That means that twenty-five years have elapsed since the first warning. Between then and now approximately nothing has been done about most of these problems, except that (a) the situation is now much worse (“in most respects, we have not heeded their warning”) and (b) this second notice has about 10 times as many scientists signing on.
2. POPULATION, FOSSIL FUELS, AND MEAT ARE KEY ISSUES. The report mentions three items that are “especially troubling”: greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and agriculture, especially “farming ruminants for meat consumption.” I quote from the latest report: “It is also time to re-examine and change our individual behaviors, including limiting our own reproduction (ideally to replacement level at most) and drastically diminishing our per capita consumption of fossil fuels, meat, and other resources.”
This problem is “limits to growth.” “Drastically diminishing” resource consumption means that a viable economy will be physically smaller than our current system. The economic system has gotten as big as it can and collapse is staring us in the face. Further expansion of the economy is technically possible (depending on how you define the “economy”), but will make the environmental crisis even worse and the collapse of civilization more likely.
How could we put it more plainly? All political leaders are promising economic growth, even some environmentalists, who imply or explicitly say that we can build out renewables such as wind and solar, which will create jobs, and everything else will hum along like before.
Will solar and wind leap forward to fill the gap created by abandoning fossil fuels? This is not likely to happen. Phasing out fossil fuels in favor of solar and wind power is going to be much, much more costly than people innocently believe — if it is possible to do it at all at the same scale — and will only solve that part of climate change having to do with fossil fuels (but not with agriculture and land use). Even if renewables were fully implemented, this still leaves us with all the other biological resource problems such as soil erosion, groundwater depletion, and mass extinctions.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for phasing out fossil fuels, but the public should be told the truth about what this will involve. We can do it, but we will have less energy and “things” at our disposal than we do today. The Climate Mobilization Victory Plan (August 2016 draft version available here) is a good general start, giving an overview of the type of effort that will be required, and deserves a blog of its own.
This is a systemic problem. We need an entirely different economic and political system: a system in which the protection of nature and economic justice is more important than economic growth. We need an entirely different culture: a culture in which the interconnectedness of all life is understood by everyone.