Climate, Ecology and the Market – Where the hell are we heading?

I’ve spent some time recently defending scientific methodology against a committed smear campaign designed to destabilise general confidence in what is, without a doubt, the most powerful set of tools designed by our species to improve how we live (the main rebuttals are now found under the ‘Alarming Religion’ tab above). Clearly, this ‘scepticism’ as it calls itself, is not a scientific scepticism at all, for evidence does nothing to alter this groundless opposition to reason. I’ve recently begun reading Brendan Gleeson’s, Lifeboat Cities (h/t to Mike), were he defines this form of scepticism as “an aggressive distaste for new thinking, especially anything that challenges the market statue quo”. I’ve previously suggested that this form of scepticism is ideologically based myself, but now I want to take it a step further and argue that it is actually a faith of the market.

Science is all good and well when it provides innovation that can become a consumable item. Technological breakthroughs are rapidly employed into next years hottest must have items, yet many of the related concerns, such as peaking oil, application of rare earth minerals and subsequent loss in disposal, unsustainable harvest and over-production and waste, are all but entirely ignored. We’re unflinching when lining up for the latest technological upgrade, but willingly remain blinkered from our impacts.

We’re all susceptible to this market based attitude as well.

At another environmental blog that I’ve previously criticised, I found myself in an argument with a few celebrated followers (all have written guest posts for that blog) over efficiency. It fizzled out, however one of the others left it by suggesting that efficiency in the future will probably be determined by market cost of power supply. Another soon after added that I’m simply not aware of the immense nuclear power supply available. Even coffee-table conservationists are capable of falling for faith of the market (obviously coupling these two replies suggests a continuous complacency and inefficiency  in human endeavours).

It’s clear that the markets won’t save us from our actions. How long before we need to start mining the rubbish tip as the only remaining areas of known rare earth mineral deposits? How stupid it is to have to waste effort/money to recollect mined and disposed  of materials! Likewise repair is not seen as a consumable (too often rehabilitation efforts are the result of interest groups, private land holders and the barest amount of state interest and funding) and as long as we think in such terms, we will continue to undermine degrade resources and ecosystems.

Being greedy little consumers has not only lead to many social and personal health issues that are largely ignored in the general public (eg. spend more on eating and then more on trying to burn the fat and then more again on medical assistance) but also a global crisis, where almost all ecosystems are rapidly degrading.

Beyond the obvious problem with the current market place mantra (ie. growth is paramount, yet impossible with limited resources and in other ways limited by the pace of renewable resources) it is also, in truth, counter-innovative and counter-intuitive (opposed to popular misconception). If our increasing understanding challenges the structure of the market, you find resistance to this new understanding. I remember Naomi Oreskes once commenting that CFC use / Ozone depletion was challenged, but only for a short time as transition to alternative technologies were cheap and easy – it wasn’t very disruptive to the market.

There are no cheap and easy (or consumable) transitions capable of addressing the host of problems facing the coming century and it isn’t too difficult to see that the entire basis of the current market ideology is at threat. Mindless consumerism and overwhelming waste simply cannot continue if we are to persist at currently population levels with the same standard of living.

Here’s another example of what I’m saying, which I’ve used previously. Basically, many of the points raised by science and argued against by the self-titled ‘climate sceptics’,  could warrant genuine concern and action even without mentioning anthropogenic climate change (ACC) at all – commentators have long seen the non-ACC warning signs of these subjects for many decades. Here’s a few;

We need to decarbonise our energy supply.

The hydrocarbons that make up fossil fuel are wonderful materials that have done far more than simply motivated pistons. The products of fossil oil are all around us, most notably, the plastics, rubber, paints and glues. If you make a conscious effort to be mindful of all the plastics around you (you’re very likely to even be wearing some, from the soles under your feet to the buttons on your otherwise 100% cotton top) it’s staggering just how many items came from fossil oil and when we’re done with them, we all too often throw them in plastic bags and into a plastic bin. Fossil oil is near peak production, after which, the price of it will ever increase and at some point (maybe a century from now) supply and demand will have pushed price of fossil oil based items out of the price range of most people – think about what that will mean for a vast amount products current surrounding you.

Coal is incredibly important in steel production for coke. We needed over 500 million tonnes of coal for 2008 steel production, if we lost this resource, the only option would be to use charcoal, requiring vast plantations (see more here). Yet, we burn it in dirty power stations, confident that the supply will outlast every living human today and leave huge clumps of steel out to erode and dissolve back into the land.

Natural gas is currently used to produce fertilisers and feeds millions. Personally, I feel that we pollute with nitrogen fertilisers and can do things better. I see gas turbines being a good transition power supply and our best option of energy supply to fuel change.

We need to increase conservation efforts and rehabilitate landscapes.

From top soil protection, water conditioning, to storm front and flood protection, landscapes with rich biodiversity provide food and water security and protect populations from the worst of nature’s fury. There is also a growing realisation (in truth, rediscovery) of the amazing importance of utilising ecological services in agricultural practices. Vast corridors increase resilience, which also allows for sustainable harvest. (while also potentially addressing the above points). Not to mention how wonderful it is to hike through native landscapes, especially when the wild flowers are out or you chance upon some little seen animal going about its business. This goes for wetlands and coastal regions as well, which provide nursery grounds for many economically valuable species, provide storm surge protection and beautiful environments where you can take off your shoes and stole long the beach, or swim among an amazing and unusual ecosystem.

We need to reduce the need for personal vehicles.

This should be self evident. Still; there are close to 7 billion people now… Think about peak hour traffic! As mentioned above, peaking oil will only make it more expensive to own a vehicle. Arguably, it also is detrimental to our health – not only with the pollution, but also our fitness level. I could write an essay on this alone, but shouldn’t need to. On the creation of the personal internal combustion engine vehicle, it quickly became a status symbol. It simply will not fit on an earth populated by up to 9 billion of us and so we need to remove it from it’s mantel!

Addressing these few points alone dramatically question how we work, where we live, how we consume and dispose. They are valid concerns on their own right, but will also go a long way to curbing ACC. However, even when we offer the above arguments, we find the same resistance as we do when we take the ACC approach. This is because the questions raised put the current market design under threat. It’s far from a bleak world ahead if we ask these questions and neuter the current market mantra. In fact innovative thinking could lead to a vastly improved standard of living for the entire of humanity as well as leading to one that is persistently rich in biodiversity. This is why I suggest the market faith is counter-innovative and counter-intuitive and is little more than self-serving. This is not an attack on capitalism or a plug for communism as some readers might assume, but rather  I’m highlighting that no system of human activity that we currently employ appropriately values each and every component of the system – the most devalued are those outside human lifespan (a tendency to assume it always was and will be) and ecological services (which don’t sit in your doorway until you provide a tip). This has to change.

You sometimes hear more radical greenies refer to our species as being a cancer of the earth. Now, of course I do not agree with this statement – we are but one species trying to persist as best we know how, exactly like every other. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that our current market base is like a form of tumour. On one side we have resources, on the other, us. In the past, we worked in small groups to produce numerous capillaries between the two.

This was efficient, but weak and susceptible to outside influences. Over time, we began to trade, thereby creating networks improving efficiency again. Eventually this network became an entity on it’s own that sat between us and the resources – this is the market. Almost everything flows though it to us. We seem sure that if it swells and grows, then we’re healthy, but this is certainly not the case.

If we produce enough food to feed the entire human population (as we do) but more than half living in perpetual hunger, there is something fundamentally wrong with our approach. If basic healthcare isn’t provided to each and every person (or, as we saw recently in the US, people who cannot afford proper medical care for their family angrily opposing universal healthcare), then something is fundamentally wrong with our approach. If our grandchildren will not know the diversity of life that we grew up with, then there is something fundamentally wrong with our approach. If we need to spend trillions globally on water and food security to replace lost ecological services, then there is something disastrously wrong with our approach.

Good governance has taken the backseat as some gluttonous growth blindly steers us onward to an unknown but concerning future. Simply questioning this growth results in angry resistance. But what does such resistance aim to protect, because it certainly is not humanity? We need to start asking the hard questions and trying to work out how best to take back the steering wheel.

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