Sunday, July 1, 2012

How Not to Eat a Planet

What does it mean to be an environmentalist these days? That's a a question that's being asked with increasing frequency. It used to be so simple. If you wanted to protect a part of the biosphere that you considered precious but which was under threat all you had to do was write letters of complaint to your MP and the local paper. If that didn't have the desired effect (and usually it didn't) you might make up some placards with a plain message painted onto it (such as Save Bluebell Wood!) and join a group of like-minded people and stand around on the High Street on a Saturday morning. When that tactic failed then more often than not it was time to take direct action and set up camp in the local wood that they were planning to cut down to make way for a new supermarket. This involved some personal risk of injury and you might have to lie down in front of a bulldozer, but at least it attracted attention and the chances of your success increased notably.

A good example of this type of protest, and one that I wrote my dissertation on when I was studying for a master's in environmental philosophy, was Twyford Down. This, for those who have never heard of it, represented a watershed moment in the history of environmental protest in Britain, and even twenty years on it arouses strong feelings. Twyford Down was an area of water meadows on chalklands, rich in biodiversity and full of historical significance with at least two ancient monuments. Unfortunately it also stood in the way of a planned link up with the M3 motorway and the Department of Transport (DoT) was determined right from the outset that no amount of protest would deter it from completing the motorway network in that area.

The process that eventually led to pitched battles as police cleared the way for the heavy earth moving equipment to wreck the fragile ecosystem turned into a textbook example of the limitations of doing things 'by the book'. Most of the people who wanted the project stopped had played by the rules and even the DoT went through all the motions of appearing to be democratic and holding public consultations. When all was said and done, what had previously been officially designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AOB) and the site of two Sceduled Ancient Monuments – in theory one of the most heavily protected areas of Britain – became just another stretch of tarmac so that goods could get to and from London a little quicker. Yet another piece of the biosphere had been sacrificed on the alter to the gods of progress and nature's rich tapestry suffered another small snip.

Twyford Down: Once a protected natural site but today a stretch of tarmac 

It was a crushing defeat for Britain's environmental movement, but nevertheless it didn't crush their resolve and the whole fiasco meant that ministers would at least think twice about planning something similar again. That can't be said of the Rio+20 Earth Summit that recently took place. At least I think it took place, I couldn't find much mention of it in the news. In fact, if anyone needed a reminder that concerns about the environment have officially been downgraded over concerns about the economy then this was it. You couldn't even call it a damp squib, because at least you expect a squib to go bang when you light the fuse. World leaders stayed away in droves and it was only the professional activists who ended up attending. If there was ever a clear signal that what some people call the global elite don't care about our planet then this was it.

Which gets me onto George Monbiot. Soon after the end of the non-summit he wrote that, not to put too finer point on it, he had given up. The whole political sphere of environmentalism had been coopted by big business interests he concluded, with the end result being an official text that talks not of sutainability but of sustainable growth. What, he asked, is the point any longer if this is the best we can acheive? In his own words:

"Giving up on global agreements or, more accurately, on the prospect that they will substantially alter our relationship with the natural world, is almost a relief. It means walking away from decades of anger and frustration. It means turning away from a place in which we have no agency to one in which we have, at least, a chance of being heard. But it also invokes a great sadness, as it means giving up on so much else."

Now, despite Monbiot's controversial support of nuclear power, I still happen to like him. I like his articulacy and his committment to unfashionable causes and willingness to act as a lightning conductor for the more vicious Telegraph troggers, who call him Mr Moonbat (note: the term trogger is something I just thought up i.e. a contraction of troll and blogger - which is what the poison pens employed by the Telegraph effectively are, and has nothing to do with what the urban dictionary defines it as!). I also like the fact that he's a father of two young kids and the moving piece he wrote to his newly born daughter about the world she will grow up – which resonates with my own experience. I met him once, getting a very short interview in Copenhagen, and he comes across as a slightly eccentric geography teacher at a boys' grammar school. He's endearing in that, up until now, he seriously seemed to believe that the powers that be would listed to his reasoned arguments and act upon them in good faith. He was a reasonable voice in an unreasonable world.

But this endearingness is also what makes him somewhat dangerous. There's nothing that a powerfully funded lobby such as the nuclear industry likes better than to display the scalp of a former enemy and George Monbiot, in claiming that Fukushima has convinced him that nuclear energy is safe, handed over his own scalp on a sliver platter. Those of us who gasped in horror at his announcement reacted at first with disbelief and then anger. His conversion seemed so utterly blinkered and naive that it was all some of us could do to open and close our mouths in disbelief like fish out of water. There are many things about nuclear power that are abhorrent but the one statistic that suffices is that there is, on average, one serious accident for every 3,000 years of reactor use. Thus, with the approximately 11,000 extra reactors that would be needed to phase out coal, we could expect around four Chernobyls or Fukushimas per year and also lack the money or resources needed to deal with these disasters.

And Monbiot isn't the only scalp, of course. In Britain alone we can add James Lovelock, Mark Lynas and former Greenpeace man Stephen Tindale to the pro-nuclear shills. There's nothing pleasant about seeing them on bended knee before Big Nuke, repeating the same press release rhetoric about 'meeting future energy needs without boosting CO2 output.' It's still more unpleasant to realise that these few greying men have come to think of themselves as the official mouthpieces of the environmental movement, and that everything they say is somehow more insightful than anyone else. Their message and tone is increasingly brittle and closed for discussion. Thus I once found myself in an on-line discussion with Mark Lynas that was supposed to be about his new book in which he expouses virtually everything he once opposed, such as a massive roll-out of GM crops across the Third World and a wholesale switch to nuclear energy. During the open discussion I raised some of the issues I have learned in the past few years from peak oil and Lynas had an iHissyfit, saying my reality-based reasoning in which I mentioned Liebig's Law of limiting factors was 'evil'.

So it's actually refreshing to see Monbiot's breakdown of faith in the sytem. He's a bit behind the curve but it's pleasant to see that finally he's 'getting it'. After all, in his own words he says:

"I do not believe that the planet-eating machine, maintained by an army of mechanics, oiled by constant injections of public money, will collapse before the living systems on which it feeds. But I might be wrong."


Yes, that's where I store what's left of my hope. For all the doom and apocalypic predictions surrounding the peak oil scene, the rather substantial silver lining is that the 'planet eating machine' is running out of power before our very eyes. Nearly every mainstream environmental organisation, from Greenpeace to WWF, trots out the same old figures about CO2 emissions rising into the distant future, taking no account of catabolic collapse due to declining net energy. Relatively soon, it will no longer be possible to ravage the world on such an industrial scale. George Monbiot, and his ilk, want to replace the oil powered planet eating machine with a nuclear powered planet eating machine. It's hardly environmentalism, is it?

But not all environmentalists have gone over to the dark side. Paul Kingsnorth, for example, whose articles I used to read in The Ecologist, 'gave up' years ago and started the Dark Mountain Project. The Dark Mountain Project is a kind of half-way house for recovering environmentalists. It's for those who have confronted their despair but refuse to give in to it, instead turning it into something more useful. Paul Kingsnorth says why he walked away from conventional hope-based environmentalism:

"It was the despair of an environmentalist who could see that environmentalism was failing and who had to work out how to deal with that. It was the despair of someone who felt he had no-one to talk to about his despair because, though many other people were feeling it too – oh, you could see it in their eyes however hard they tried to conceal it – it was never talked about. Activists do not talk about despair. No-one talks about despair. Despair, in a progressive society, is taboo. We do not want despair. We want hope. Hope, all the time. Hope, like a drug. Do not look down – look away."

And it seems to me that being a modern day environmental activist is all about cheating despair. Sign up for any newsletter from groups such as and you'll likely be bombarded with chirpy upbeat messages about how well their campaign is going. All we have to do is click away and someone somewhere will deliver a petition to someone important who will in all probably ignore it. It's an efficient system for limiting the effectiveness of protest and at the same time making the would-be protesters feel as if they are doing something useful. I even saw one group recently saying that if every protester were 'armed' with a quad-core laptop and linked in to Twitter, Facebook and various other networks they could out-process the evil global elite and effect a revolution that would usher in a new age of global peace based on an equitable distribution of ... yadder yadder yadder. You get the point.

But maybe it's time to confront the depair, work through it and get on with something useful? I'm not saying that there is no point in protesting on a global level or being a clicktivist – just that we should realise that by doing so we are getting involved with ritualism and our 'actions' may never be more than symbolic. As such, in an age dominated by the dark forces of progress-at-all-costs, placing too much faith in the effectiveness of altering consciousness with symbolic gestures can end in obessive denial and even psychosis.

For his own part I read that George Monbiot had moved to a remotish part of Wales to raise his kids, catches his own fish every morning from a kayak and is now focusing his efforts on projects that restore the wild in areas degraded by man's destructive habits. All that's needed now is a strongly worded renunciation of nuclear power and I suspect that 99% of UK environmentalists would forgive him.

By fighting to protect places and species instead of focusing obsessively on the impossible task of getting nations to reduce their CO2 emissions we can throw a lifeline to our planet. Or at least to bits of it. Have a look for example at Miranda Gibson, who is currently living up a tree in Tasmania and trying to stop logging concerns from trashing the forests. She's as good an example as there is of someone willing to forego personal comfort and safety to protect something of immeasurable beauty and natural worth.

Some people just shrug and say 'what's the point?'. This is both a defeatist and nihilist attitude. None of us should think that their individual efforts will 'Save the Planet' (or some other nonsense) but neither should we think they have no effect at all. We just have to accept that there will be consequences of our individual actions, some of which are noticeable and most of which are not. The actions we take today set the scene for what happens in the future.

To me at least, that's something worth fighting for.


  1. I've been saying it for awhile, collapse is coming just in time to save us from ourselves. Problem is, about half of humanity has tasted the "good life", and can't be bothered with any talk about limits. No amount of global leadership is going to stop the insatiable thirst for affluence infecting the global "middle class" - but a global liquidity freeze might. Question is, is there anything short of population collapse that would convince humanity that the concept of Growth with a capital G is a fundamentally bad idea?

    Thought experiment: If 85-90% of humanity were wiped out in a generation, by war, climate change, famine, economic collapse, pestilence, cannibalism, nuclear meltdown etc with no sign of Jesus, or aliens, or reptilian Illuminati, will we still be talking about economic growth?

    I've re-wilded my little lot here in Minneapolis. I'm thinking of retiring to a bit more secluded spot, to continue that work on a slightly grander scale - from the inside out.

    1. I reckon if 90% of humanity were wiped out we'd still be talking about growth - just not the economic kind. Getting the numbers back up would be pretty much a goal of every leader.

      Well done with your re-wilding. There's plenty of unintentional re-wilding going on these days too - especially in once populated urban and industrial areas around the western world.

  2. "Relatively soon, it will no longer be possible to ravage the world on such an industrial scale."

    I think many environmentalists like the sound of this, but faced with the actual consequences (like not having as much to eat, or not enough) it isn't so appealing, which is why making allowances for nuclear energy and bio-fuels are all too likely. This is especially so when the environmentalist is faced with consenting to dirty energy (like tar sands) or the alternative of seeing their children suffer malnutrition. This fosters the political will for dirty energy to be maintained and developed further, which circles around and causes worse problems in the future. However, the future can't protest.

    The system is so rotten and you simply can't fix it. In our present age of kaliyuga you can only really expect things to get worse and worse.

    1. You might be onto something there but I honestly think that environmentalists on this side of the Pond are a different type to Environmentus Americanus. As such, I don't think many have made the mental leap that you mention, instead the whole issue is framed within a 'dirty coal/oil versus shiny clean tech' binary paradigm.

      Those who do make the mental leap become so frightened that they'll agree to anything, i.e. nuclear. But it's a Faustian bargain - presumably they think they'll have some control over what Big Nuke (actually, let's just call it 'Nuke' - there's no such thing as 'Small Nuke') will do, but sadly they're mistaken. It's never wise to make important decisions from a position of extreme weakness and fear.

      As for the age of Kaliyuga, because of my standard issue upbringing I used to think it was impossible that a bunch of ancient Indian mystics could have anything relevant to say about the modern world. These days I'm all ears. Any idea how long we've got left before it ends?

  3. Growth = Environmental destruction. Capitalism co=opted the green movement with 'sustainable growth' and other such nonsense. If you want to be green, then give up capitalism for another economy that does not eat up the natural world, converting all of nature's biota to dollars, yen, deutschmarks, and every other manmade currency.
    THE MACHINE still has a lot of unconventional, environmentally destructive sources of unconventional oil to pull from. This is bad news for the planet and for future generations.

    1. "If you want to be green, then give up capitalism for another economy that does not eat up the natural world, converting all of nature's biota to dollars, yen, deutschmarks, and every other manmade currency."

      Sorry, I originally misread that as country and not economy - hence my previous (deleted) post.

      Capitalism, for all its faults, is hardly any worse than planned economic models. What I'd really like to see is a system that doesn't treat the biosphere as a giant free lunch that we can all gorge ourselves on until it's all gone. In any case, falling net energy will put rather a gigantic spanner in the wheels of global capitalism. The fact that they can't even see that is all well and good.

  4. Both this essay and the linked to Monbiot essay are excellent.

    Monbiot goes into this more, but I've been surprised to the extent to which the elites are determined to die in a ditch to save late stage industrial capitalism (sorry, can't think of a better name yet) and bring us down with them. Compare this to the relative flexibility, in different ways and albeit with lots of flaws, shown by the leadership of China and the Soviet Union in the 1980s when the Communist systems were entering into a terminal crisis.

    Reading the peak oil blogs, I do get a sense, though its only occasionally openly admitted, of relief that peak oil will cut off the power to the late stage capitalists before they visit even worse destruction on both civilization and the natural environment. Of course, peak oil visited on a more rational, melioristic, and less parasitical system would be an unmitigated tragedy. But such a system would probably also takes the steps needed to mitigate the negative consequences.

  5. Jason,

    You keep the standards high. Another great post.

    Let me suggest something: Perhaps it's best not to think in terms of results here. That is, perhaps we should not think of environmental activism in instrumental terms. We should not think of it as an "instrumental good" (a means to an end). Rather, we should think of living lightly on the earth as an "intrinsic good." That is, it's good in and of itself, regardless of whether or not it changes the world (or even a small part of it). That's the thing about all ethical action and all reduction in our impact on the earth: it's good in and of itself. I suspect Jeffery above would know a lot about this. In Buddhist terms, one should not be attached to the result of one's actions or even think about the goal of enlightenment. This idea also exists in Christianity - you know, the bit about not doing your good acts on the street corner where all can see them and not letting the left hand know when the right hand is doing a good deed. The good deed is good in and of itself. One's life is improved by living lightly on the earth, although, in saying that, the keen reader will see that I've just made living ethically an instrumental good again. Anyway, I think you know what I mean: treading lightly just feels good and is good. Or, perhaps one would rather work all day at some shit job just to drive a BMW. Not me. Less is much more. Cut the chains of desire and consumption and free yourself! As you, Jason, are doing so well. And, as they said in the 60s: teach your children well.

    1. Thanks. Copenhagen doesn't have many good pubs for me to prop up the bar in boring the clientèle, hence this blog ;-)

      I agree about the intrinsic value of doing 'good' (for want of a better word). One of the problems with the green movement is that they tried to get more people to join up by promising them something that it wasn't feasible to give them i.e. the idea that they could 'save the world'.

      Those who tread lightly on the Earth are often labelled as smug by those who live heedlessly. I don't know, perhaps some people are, but it's not something that ever motivated me.

      The world will save itself just fine, although it'll probably shake a good many of us off to do so. It's not a popular message though in this day and age. I think first we need to get through the age of Kaliyuga that Jeffrey mentions above - whatever religions emerge from the wreckage will likely place a good deal more emphasis on living with one's means, ecologically speaking.

  6. "As for the age of Kaliyuga..."

    Their logic was pretty simple: with time general human affliction (or passions) will increase, leading to increasingly destructive and irrational behaviours. Take for example the following from the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam:

    SB 12.2.1: Śukadeva Gosvāmī said: Then, O King, religion, truthfulness, cleanliness, tolerance, mercy, duration of life, physical strength and memory will all diminish day by day because of the powerful influence of the age of Kali.

    SB 12.2.2: In Kali-yuga, wealth alone will be considered the sign of a man's good birth, proper behavior and fine qualities. And law and justice will be applied only on the basis of one's power.

    SB 12.2.3: Men and women will live together merely because of superficial attraction, and success in business will depend on deceit. Womanliness and manliness will be judged according to one's expertise in sex, and a man will be known as a brāhmaṇa just by his wearing a thread.

    SB 12.2.4: A person's spiritual position will be ascertained merely according to external symbols, and on that same basis people will change from one spiritual order to the next. A person's propriety will be seriously questioned if he does not earn a good living. And one who is very clever at juggling words will be considered a learned scholar.

    SB 12.2.5: A person will be judged unholy if he does not have money, and hypocrisy will be accepted as virtue. Marriage will be arranged simply by verbal agreement, and a person will think he is fit to appear in public if he has merely taken a bath.

    SB 12.2.7: As the earth thus becomes crowded with a corrupt population, whoever among any of the social classes shows himself to be the strongest will gain political power.

    SB 12.2.8: Losing their wives and properties to such avaricious and merciless rulers, who will behave no better than ordinary thieves, the citizens will flee to the mountains and forests.

    SB 12.2.9: Harassed by famine and excessive taxes, people will resort to eating leaves, roots, flesh, wild honey, fruits, flowers and seeds. Struck by drought, they will become completely ruined.

    SB 12.2.10: The citizens will suffer greatly from cold, wind, heat, rain and snow. They will be further tormented by quarrels, hunger, thirst, disease and severe anxiety.

    This kind of narrative, while bleak, has the benefit of preparing mentally and materially for worst times, not better. As for when it ends, it won't be in this century or millennium.

    1. This all sounds a bit ...familiar!

      Thanks for sharing it.

  7. Saving species sounds nice, but incinerating ourselves, while we try to save species sounds...problematic.

    On the flip side, what exactly does happen if we run out of viable (cost-wise) fossil fuels? With simultaneos argeuments about fracking and 105 degree heat in North Carolina, it seems like a fairly tight race at the moment.

    No doubt I am being alarmist.

    1. What happens if we run out of affordable fossil fuels? Plenty of things that we're all going to find out about soon enough!

  8. Another great post Jason. I was just skimming through "Six Degrees" and was more than a little surprised to see Lynus thank Paul Kingsnorth, tennis partner, in the acknowledgments. Must be some backstory there!

    I look at converging catastrophes as quite the horse race - impossible to say which will overtake the pack before they all tumble over the finish line. I have tended to think however that ecosystem collapse will precede an economic melt down attributable to peak energy and recently insanely violent weather and other breached climate tipping points seem to me to support that notion, which isn't at all good, because it makes it less likely that the biosphere will recuperate in any meaningful way for many millions of year.

    And if you think I'm pessimistic, check out predictions from the Arctic Emergency crew - especially Douglas Spence, who says the following:


    1. Even with the Arctic ice in the present state increasingly extreme weather is already moving us closer to a point of increasing risk to agricultural output.

    2. For the last few years extreme weather has worsened year on year and since we have positive feedback processes in progress we have no reason to suppose this will do anything but accelerate rapidly.


    3. I expect significant to majority sea ice loss to occur in either 2012 or 2013, and expect this to dramatically worsen the weather, causing immediate stress to global food supplies. Combined with weak economic conditions we will see stress in countries dependent on food imports or aid triggering more "Arab spring" moments in previously stable regimes. Movement of refugees will cause knock on effects in neighbouring regions.

    4. Modern civilisation is fragile and dependent on global supply chains that can be disrupted both by weather and politics. We will experience an increasing incidence of problems maintaining normal operation in technologically advanced societies. There is the potential for conflict in the Arctic as new resources open up.

    5. Other positive feedbacks such as methane release and forest burn off will accelerate.


    6. I expect total sea ice loss will occur during summer in either 2014 or 2015. By this time I expect agricultural output to have declined to a point where food supplies are inadequate and famine and conflict are rife. Farmers will not know what to plant or when and even acquiring seed from other climatic regions may be problematic.

    7. Social conditions will be comparable to the Holomodor. People will try to eat anything and everything - earthworms, insects, each other - even in some cases their own children. Nation states will fragment and reform into smaller and increasingly violent competitive groups fighting over rapidly diminishing resources. Maintaining the supply chains required for the operation of modern technology including agriculture will be largely impossible.

    8. If we see widespread war before nation states fragment there is a possibility of the use of nuclear and genetically enhanced biological weaponry. Whether through war or famine the human population will be in freefall.


    9. The climate will continue to worsen as more heat flows into the system and this will become the new threat to survivors as population density becomes too low to sustain conflict. Most survivors will be eliminated, leaving the human race on the brink of extinction. A majority of the planet will cease to be habitable. The deserts will greatly expand, though this will help balance the planets thermal budget. Very few people will live to see the Arctic sea ice entirely gone throughout the year or the ruined cities drowned in the rising sea.

    10. Assuming the collapse is as rapid and severe as I expect – I would expect the human population to collapse below the new carrying capacity of the planet and therefore for resource pressure to lighten once a sufficient number of people die (granted with few useful resources left and uncertainty about precisely which regions would be good prospects).

    1. Here's the rest, with the link, it wouldn't all fit:


      Theoretically there will be some isolated and scattered areas where the climate is still habitable, resources are sufficient and some form of agriculture can be practised. If small groups of people make it to these areas, there is a theoretical chance over many generations to recover civilisation, albeit at great disadvantage.

      Disaster taxa will rapidly proliferate into the empty ecosystem, leaving the return of biodiversity to occur over a few million years, bringing the sixth great mass extinction to a close.

      NB Since we are at a point where weather is a key effect, allow +/- 1 year for (good/bad) luck.


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.