Saturday, 15 July 2017

The Uninhabitable Earth.


In a series of articles for the New York Magazine David Wallace-Wells describes the consequences of global warming. It's a nightmarish scenario, and Wallace-Wells throws everything at his readers, even the kitchen sink.

Beyond raising sea levels, Wallace-Wells reminds us of other possible effects of increasing temperature: large swathes of the planet, too hot for human life could become uninhabitable, mega-storms and mega-droughts, mass migrations, crops failings, ocean acidification, mass extinction on land and in the water, new diseases or return of old ones, military conflicts, CO2-induced stupidification of humanity.

Is that a realistic scenario?

Frankly, I wouldn't have a clue. Many have commented on the articles, accusing Wallace-Wells of alarmism.

Even if all his claims were well founded, many, I suppose, could be sensitive to changes on current trends.

One thing, however, seems certain to me: no matter however many things he might have wrong, the things he could get right would still leaves us in deep shit. And the thing is, although everybody is going to lose, you can guess who the likely biggest losers will be: those unable to pay for more expensive food, relocation, medicine, energy.

Just look at the mirror and think of billions of faces like that, all over the world.

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Apparently, at least some Australian climate scientists aren't too bullish about our future, either:

"Cradling her newborn baby girl, heatwave expert Sarah Perkins Kirkpatrick admits to feeling torn between the joy of motherhood and anxiety over her first-born child's future.
" 'I always wanted a big family and I'm thrilled. But my happiness is altered by what I know is coming with climate change,' she said.
" 'I don't like to scare people but the future's not looking very good. Having a baby makes it personal. Will this child suffer heatstroke just walking to school?' "
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About a year ago, almost to the day, Adam Sternbergh asked whether the present was worse than any futuristic dystopia. He didn't think so.

Dystopias, he argued, are useful as warnings about how the future might turn out if things continue as they are; utopias, on the other hand, show how things could be so much better, if only we did the right things. He concluded his reflections thus:
"The current Trumpified moment isn't the worst-case scenario, despite what your Twitter feed is screaming at you. If we want to transcend this current moment, it's important that we not only retain the desire to hope for the best. We also have to work hard to imagine the worst."
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I am a curious Marxist: a pessimist by nature. At my age, it's too late for me to change. I don't believe in utopias, not even Marxist ones.

I do believe, however, socialism could result in a fairer, more equal, rational, democratic society. But that outcome is not inevitable: many things could still turn out bad.

In the same spirit I'll tell you this: capitalism isn't up to the task of averting Wallace-Wells' worse-case scenario or ensure our survival as civilisation or even as species, so the question of utopia is quickly becoming moot. We aren't thinking about that, as Sternbergh asked of us.

Wallace-Wells, on the other hand, is not blind to the link global warming-capitalism. Unfortunately, he didn't join the dots.

18 comments:

  1. I'm currently following the work of Guy McPherson, who has predicted the demise of the human species within a decade, and John Michael Greer, who predicts that we are headed for a decline in civilization over the course of a few hundred years. Although their prognostications are different, they share the view that we have neglected the importance of ecology, and live in a culture that has bought into several myths. One is the myth of progress, and another is the notion that human beings are separate from nature.

    From what we can tell from history, civilizations can collapse. And the history of the Earth includes periods of mass extinctions, whereupon the biosphere collapsed.

    That being said, I cannot bring myself to believe in one prediction or the other. The most I can do is view them as thought experiments, and to draw conclusions from them in that context. I try to regard dystopian outcomes in the same way I regard utopian ones, by not being prejudiced towards one or the other.

    Predicting the future is a difficult endeavour and involves uncertainty. It seems to me that one strategy for dealing with uncertainty is to exercise precaution. Another is contingency planning. Unfortunately, we aren't pursuing those strategies to the extent that we should.

    Allowing decisions to be made on the basis of whether it is profitable is reckless. Continuing to push 'business as usual' in the face of disturbing trends is reckless. That is what we do.

    Tonight on the Uncaring Universe News Network... arrogant, foolish species receives its comeuppance.

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    1. Allowing decisions to be made on the basis of whether it is profitable is reckless. Continuing to push 'business as usual' in the face of disturbing trends is reckless. That is what we do.

      I remember reading a few years ago that naturalists exploring those last few remaining wilderness areas more or less untouched decided not to communicate the discovery of new species.

      They noticed that after announcing the discovery of new animal species (generally, smallish critters, like newts, snakes, birds, insects, frogs, spiders and such), the species often went extinct. That was a mystery. Why would that happen?

      The mystery had a simple explanation: poachers would get a small fortune selling rich collectors exotic pets. Those newly discovered exotic pets.

      Apparently, some naturalists approached the poachers to ask why they would over-exploit the little things, after all, once gone, the smugglers would lose their business.

      The answer applies as much to the poachers as it applies to capitalism in general. The guy said that he was aware that over exploitation would push the population to extinction, but if he didn't do it, someone else would. The species would disappear just the same, and he would not make any money from it.

      Now, one may not like the conclusion, but one cannot deny there's logic in his argument. As it happens, this has been studied and it's called the Tragedy of the Commons.

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    2. The logic follows from treating everything, including living things, as commodities. Capitalism and humanism are the culprits.

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  2. "I don't believe in utopias, not even Marxist ones."

    And yet, in an apparent irony, this is a big part of what makes one Marxist. ;)

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    1. Being a critic of capitalism does not make one a Marxist?

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    2. Being a critic of capitalism does not make one a Marxist?

      Not all critiques of capitalism were created equal. Keynes was a critic of capitalism... laissez-faire capitalism, that is. He had no problem with "managed" capitalism.

      Anarcho-capitalists are critics of what they call "crony" capitalism (which is quite similar to managed capitalism), but they have no problem with laissez-faire capitalism.

      Their endless and often tiresome squabbling is not around the noun (capitalism), but around the adjective (managed vs laissez-faire).

      There are religious/moral critiques of capitalism: love-thy-neighbour/God's will kind of thing.

      Catholic criticism of capitalism takes up this form, sometimes advocating more democratic arrangements of society (for instance, in the theology of liberation movement) sometimes advocating a return to more traditional and illiberal arrangements, as they used to do in Latin America, Spain and Portugal and Italy, during Fascism.

      Marxist criticism is different: there's no fundamental difference between laissez-faire and managed capitalism; we don't do moral critiques, not because capitalism is moral, but because morals, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

      That does not mean all other critiques are necessarily equally misguided. Personally, I have great respect for theology of liberation, even though I'm not religious.

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    3. Your answer does a good job of covering the criticism aspect. Now for solutions. How is belief in a utopia a big part of Marxism?

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    4. Your answer does a good job of covering the criticism aspect. Now for solutions.

      Thanks.

      How is belief in a utopia a big part of Marxism?

      It's a long story and it depends how one defines utopia. I'll give you my take. Others may disagree and if Hedlund wants to add something or comment, he's most welcome.

      I've recently wrote a post ("This is Why the Modern Left Sucks" 13/05/2017) that somehow, sort of tangentially, deals with this.

      Classical, Manchesterian liberals (what today one could call anarcho-capitalists, libertarians or more appropriately propertarians) preached that self-interested, isolated individuals, given property rights and freedom to act on their own interest, plus the right institutions, would reach automatically, inevitably the best (optimal) outcomes for themselves as individuals and for society as a whole.

      Of course, things didn't turn out that way and the very same people could not indefinitely deny that (against the "those guys are dumb" explanation, those were often extremely clever people). Why the failure? they asked themselves. One answer is that markets had imperfections.

      Well, remove the imperfections and things will improve. Easy.

      That didn't work, either.

      I once read a comment which, from memory, goes something like this: The deal where one person gets everything, while another gets to starve may be optimal, but it ain't good. It fits the situation rather well.

      Liberals would certainly deny it, but theirs was utopian thinking and early critics of capitalism (often religious types) noticed that. Instead of having isolated individuals, freely acting in their self-interest, they would have rich people assuming greater responsibility for their disadvantaged brethren. (Calls for corporate social responsibility aren't a new thing, by any means).

      It wasn't property rights or the institutions at fault, these people thought: it was people's moral failings. People had to change.

      That, too, was utopian. Those were the utopian socialists. When Hedlund says that not believing in utopias is a big part of what makes one a Marxist, he is, of course, right and this is what he has in mind.

      There's no point changing the players' minds or hearts if the rules of the game (property rights and the market institutions) are not changed.

      In this sense, utopia is some ideal state of society which can be achieved provided people previously change their minds: the rich agrees to share with the poor. Marxists don't believe that's possible (neither do I).

      Marxism opposes that nineteenth century utopian socialism: it's anti-utopianism.

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      There's, however, another way one can define utopia. Once socialism is achieved, people will be wiser, kinder, more generous. In my experience, some Marxists appear to believe that. I don't.

      I'm pessimistic about people.

      Socialism may deny incentives to bastardry, incentives which capitalism provides in abundance, but socialism does not guarantee any results. The bastard will be a bastard under socialism as much as he is under capitalism. He needs no incentive, he is a bastard because he can.

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    5. I don't have a whole lot to add; the characterizations ring true enough.

      I'll submit that I might bill myself less of a pessimist than our esteemed host, though not necessarily because of any substantive disagreement on the underlying point. Social conditioning plays an incredibly crucial role in forming us as human beings, and I believe that class society adds something especially pernicious to the brew, and that (all else being equal) we're bound to be better humans without it. But even if it is the largest contradiction in social life, it's not the only one, and there will indeed be other impetuses for people to upset or harm one another. The belief that we'll create a new, more harmonious humanity in the span of one generation, let alone overnight, is one I'd class among the very utopian notions under discussion. It will take time and work. But that work will, I suspect, be aided by the abolition of class division.

      If there are people that truly believe that socialism is sufficient (rather than merely necessary) to create a more just humanity, then that merely illustrates Marx & Engels's point; socialists are not immune to the tendency to idealize. As such, "choosing materialism" might be better thought of as an effortful, ongoing process than a one-off declaration of orientation.

      Also, Bob, if you haven't read Engels's "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific," I recommend it as a supplement to this sort of discussion. It's a fairly short but effective piece.

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    6. I have little problem with that.

      My best guess is that the effect of socialism on people's behaviour should vary in time, as you say, and depending on the sphere we are talking about.

      Let's begin with crime, white collar crime and corruption in particular. The problem of private sector capture of regulators should be entirely eliminated. For instance, no more revolving door SEC/Goldman Sachs/universities: there would be no more Goldman Sachs! No more political campaigns financed by rich individuals or groups of individuals? No more public office holders indebted to them!

      To the extent that poverty induces common criminality (theft, prostitution, some related violence), socialism should reduce criminality.

      It's harder to guess the effect of socialism on criminality induced by ambition without bounds. Left to themselves, the unscrupulously ambitious should still attempt to take advantage of any opportunity available, that much is clear. The problem they should confront is what to do with their gains? Conspicuous consumption would be a neon sign pointing to something suspicious.

      Whatever effects socialism had, garden variety criminality would not be completely eliminated, that much seems plausible. Socialist society, just like capitalist society, would need police and tribunals and perhaps even prisons.

      That is particularly important now: I'd be surprised if socialism had any perceptible effect on other kinds of criminality, like psycho/sociopathy. One should expect sexual crimes and serial killings no less than one expect them in a capitalist society. Unlike capitalism, however, under a more democratic society, sex offenders and so-called functional psycho/sociopaths would need popular approval to attain and keep positions of authority. Life could be a lot harder for them.

      Beyond criminality, socialism should have different effects on bigotry. To the extent that misoginy, racism and xenophobia are due to competition for jobs, to that extent, too, socialism should offer an improvement. You would have a job with equal pay, no more, no less. My guess, however, is that socialism should not bring much change on homophobia or religious intolerance.

      Gratuitously rude, disconsiderate, obnoxious, abusive, bitter, hateful, dumb people, would probably remain rude, disconsiderate, obnoxious, abusive, bitter, hateful and dumb. The short will not grow taller, nor the ugly will suddently become handsome. Hair will not miraculously grow on the balding, nor the unattractive will get more action in bed.

      Let me sum things up: my most conservative and cautious appraisal is that socialism may not be paradise, but it would be no worse than capitalism, at least in what we considered here.

      As I see things, socialism neither promises that people will turn into angels, nor it needs miracles. If capitalism can promise both things, I'd be glad to reconsider my socialism.

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  3. If I understand what you are saying, Hedlund's remark is a reference to Utopian Socialism. Marxists would be critical of their approach, which was to persuade capitalists.

    I'd define that approach as naive, and if such persuasion were carried out forcefully, would be dystopian.

    The second definition is what I assumed is attributed to Marxism. You want to change the system but there is skepticism that it will turn out as described. In other words, people will not change.

    I'm pessimistic about people too. They seek to circumvent obstacles placed in their path, sometimes just for the challenge of it. I'm reminded of how a squirrel reacts, when presented with a squirrel-proof bird feeder. Squirrels are bastards.

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    1. @ Bob,

      I'm not sure which of the two comments is addressed to me, and which is addressed to Hedlund. I'll reply to Bob 20 July 2017 at 08:57.

      The second definition is what I assumed is attributed to Marxism. You want to change the system but there is skepticism that it will turn out as described. In other words, people will not change.

      The second definition I gave of utopianism is indeed the Marxist one.

      But it is not a matter that all the people will not change, but that some people will not change, ever. You know the kind of people I'm talking about.

      The bottom line is that one may improve the living conditions of most everybody, but there's a group whose living conditions will of necessity suffer. One cannot expect them to be happy with that. Change for them really, objectively, truly sucks, big time.

      Even among the beneficiaries there will always be people who are unhappy. You give them housing, they expect beauty and eternal youth and a Bentley with a chauffeur. Change for them, unlike the previous group. is objectively good, but they will complain because it should have been better.

      Let me put things this way: it doesn't make sense to demand the lifeboats be as comfortable as (or better than) first class cabins, when the ocean liner is sinking. And the capitalist Titanic is sinking. This is what I meant with "the question of utopia is quickly becoming moot" remark near the end of my post.

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    2. The Titanic did not have enough lifeboats. Capitalism, in its triumphalist version, has a similar design. Utopia would be moot if we didn't have powerful people who are willing to preserve what they see as the best of all possible worlds. They are prepared to fight for their definition. The powerless just want to survive.

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    3. I suppose I wasn't clear.

      The Titanic did not have enough lifeboats.

      Imagine instead of "Titanic" I had used the name of a boat that did have enough lifeboats for all passengers and crew, but it is sinking. Say "The Love Boat", or "Queen Elizabeth XIV", or better still, you name it. Would that make a big difference to the situation?

      That is, would that have made the objection below any more surreal?

      "I will only take the place reserved for me in my uniquely allocated lifeboat if it is first class! A less luxurious lifeboat, like the one available to me and the ones available to all other passengers and crew members, may save my life, but it is unacceptable."

      Or, let me put another example. You have a gangrenous leg and the infection has extended to all your organism. The doctor tells you that your situation is dire and that an amputation is urgently required. Mind you, the infection is too extended and the doc gives you no guarantee of survival. Maybe it's too late as it is and even after the amputation you may still die, but at least it shall give you a fighting chance. Would you refuse on account that "an amputation is unacceptable to me, because missing a leg should feel uncomfortable and, on top, I'll need new trousers"?

      Capitalism, in its triumphalist version, has a similar design.

      By which, I suppose, you mean that capitalism in its triumphalist version doesn't have enough lifeboats. (what is the "triumphalist version", btw, and how is it different from the other versions?)

      Utopia would be moot if we didn't have powerful people who are willing to preserve what they see as the best of all possible worlds. They are prepared to fight for their definition.

      I'm all for letting them fight and, personally, I wish them the best of lucks.

      But you'll understand if I have questions. For instance, who are those (extremely) powerful people we have who can fix the list of problems Wallace-Wells posed? Are they representing the non-triumphalist version of capitalism?

      How are they planning to do that? What, exactly, are they doing?

      It's not that I'm sceptical or anything, but in the meantime, I think we the powerless should pay careful attention to our own survival. You know, just in case?

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    4. I'm certain that even the harshest critic of socialism would board any lifeboat that would allow them to live another day. What is said and what is done are rarely synonymous.

      Triumphalist capitalists believe in the end of history. As far as they are concerned, capitalism is superior to all previous systems and is the culmination of human social development. It is part of the myth of progress.

      The powerful are those who have access to and control of the Earth's resources. This means the wealthy, the state and it's institutions, the police and the military. They represent the largest organizations of force. They will fight to preserve themselves at everyone else's expense. If you get in their way, they will kill you.

      The powerless who find ways to be self-sufficient or group sufficient at the local level will survive. Those who are dependent on the system as it exists today will perish. I'm in the latter group.

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  4. So Marx and Engels called this form of socialism utopian, versus their own, which they termed scientific. What goes around, comes around.

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