An outsider’s view of Earth
Our writer briefs a visitor sent to save the planet
Nobel laureate Doris Lessing’s 1971 novel, Briefing for a Descent Into Hell, imagines other planets sending volunteers to try and save Earth because its death would threaten them all. The volunteers are first informed of the scope of their mission and nature of the planet’s inhabitants during a “briefing” session.
The basic problem, The Briefer explains, is that human beings have not learned that everything is interconnected and “have not yet evolved into an understanding of their individual selves as merely part of a whole, first of all humanity, let alone achieving a conscious knowledge of humanity as a part of Nature.”
Believing that an outsider perspective may be illuminating in evaluating today’s news, we imagine here what The Briefer would tell “a volunteer” about Earth’s present situation.
The Briefer: You are being sent to the United States of America, Earth’s most powerful nation, at a time of great economic, geopolitical and biospheric crisis.
In Is Humanity Suicidal? E. O. Wilson, one of Earth’s leading biologists, wrote: “Individuals place themselves first, family second, tribe third, and the rest of the world a distant fourth. During all but the last few millennia of the two million years of [their] existence … a premium was placed on close attention to the near future … So today the human mind still works comfortably backward and forward only a few years.” This is a precise description of how America and the world have reached its present crisis. Powerful elites have preyed upon the poor and gullible to destroy national economies and even their own companies, enriching themselves at the expense of others. Now, only a dramatic transformation without precedent in human experience—changing from modes of competition to cooperation, consumption to investment and short- to long-term thinking—can save the species.
The Volunteer: The newspapers and TV news on Earth seem focused almost entirely on the collapsing world economy. There are also numerous stories about war and terrorism, particularly a Middle East where medieval fanatics are gaining in Afghanistan and a nuclear-armed Pakistan, and an Iran which is pursuing nuclear weapons. Is the economy or war the greatest challenge facing the human species at this point?
Neither. Economic breakdown and war are serious matters threatening the well-being of many millions of people. But their most serious consequence is that they divert resources from humanity’s top priority: meeting the threat to its survival from the interaction between global warming, biodiversity loss, ocean destruction and other unprecedented assaults upon Earth’s basic life-support systems. The newspapers you cite reveal just how much humans are in psychological denial about the seriousness of their plight.
How serious is the situation with the biosphere?
Very serious. Humanity will either build new renewable energy-powered economies and live, or fail to do so and die. As in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, people will have to consume far less and invest far more in building a new economy. They will have to live with less now so that they—and their kids and grandkids—will not only live well but simply live. Doing so is technically feasible but politically difficult. America is fortunate to have a new president, Barack Obama, who understands the seriousness of the situation, unlike his predecessor who actually sanctioned biospheric degradation.
What evidence is there for the magnitude of this threat?
The world’s scientists, traditionally competing for grants and laurels like the Nobel Prize, rarely agree. For the first time in scientific history, however, climate scientists have not only reached a near-unanimous consensus that human-made global warming threatens humanity, but have formed a global organization—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—to try and prevent it. Their most recent report states: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal. Eleven of the last twelve years (1995-2006) rank among the twelve warmest years in the instrumental record of global surface temperature [since 1850]. … [Climate change], together with sea level rise, are expected to have mostly adverse effects on natural and human systems [including] … increased risk of deaths, injuries and infectious, respiratory and skin diseases … water and food-borne diseases; posttraumatic stress disorders … increased risk of deaths and injuries by drowning in floods; migration-related health effects.”
Although critics accuse the IPCC of being alarmist, it has in fact been too conservative. Adverse effects of climate change have regularly exceeded its predictions.
So is the heating of the planet the only problem?
No. Also of particular concern is the state of the Earth’s oceans. The moderate Economist magazine’s survey of the world’s oceans concluded on December 31, 2008: “Fish are now almost everywhere in decline. Coral reefs have suffered most. The sea is hideously polluted. Ice melts. Each of these changes is a catastrophe. Together they make for something much worse. Moreover, they are happening alarmingly fast. Many are irreversible.” Wisely, it stated that “the mass extinction, however remote, that should be concentrating minds is that of mankind.”
What scientists have proven particularly credible on all this?
Dr. James Hansen first brought global warming to world attention and, although he is also accused of alarmism, negative events have often outstripped his predictions. He has recently written that unless dramatic action is taken to reverse global warming “we will leave a devastated, impoverished planet for all generations of humanity that we can imagine … recent evidence reveals a situation more urgent than had been expected. … It will be necessary to take actions that return [carbon dioxide] to a level of at most 350 pip [parts per million], but probably less, if we are to avert disastrous pressures on fellow species and large sea level rise.”
Dr. James Lovelock, a distinguished British scientist who discovered ozone-layer depletion and invented the “Gaia Hypothesis,” predicted in 2007, in an issue of Rolling Stone magazine, that global warming will bring “mass migrations [and] epidemics, which are likely to kill millions. By 2100, the Earth’s population will be culled from today’s 6.6 billion to as few as 500 million, with most of the survivors living in the far latitudes—Canada, Iceland, Scandinavia, the Arctic Basin.”
My God! Six billion humans dead! Are all the experts as pessimistic as Dr. Lovelock?
No. Most, like Hansen, believe the planet can still be saved. But Hansen thinks this will require dramatic measures like imposing a tax on all sources of carbon at the wellhead, which would both dramatically reduce the use of carbon and make renewable energy cost-competitive. He also believes coal must be outlawed as soon as possible—saying that “the trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains. Coal-fired power plants are factories of death.” He also advocates safe nuclear energy.
There are a handful of expert skeptics about the dangers posed by global warming. But given the unusual consensus among almost all other experts, nonexpert citizens have no responsible choice except to make saving the biosphere their top priority. One would think that the unexpected collapse of the world economy would wake up humans to the possibility of biospheric collapse. The IPCC has written that man-made “warming could lead to some impacts that are abrupt or irreversible, depending upon the rate and magnitude of the climate change.” Many credible climate scientists fear that global warming could, relatively soon, reach a “tipping point,” making it impossible to forestall a global catastrophe. Humans are in denial, however, about the threat to their survival.
What could cause climatechange to become irreversible?
Interactions between separate climate-caused problems accelerate the rate of degradation in unforeseen ways. Christopher Field, a Carnegie Institution expert, reported on February 15, 2009, that “emissions from burning fossil fuels since 2000 have largely outpaced the estimates used in the [United Nations] panel’s 2007 reports.”
The Washington Post reported on February 15, 2009, that “unexpectedly large amounts of carbon dioxide are being released into the atmosphere as the result of ‘feedback loops.’ … Prominent among these, evidence indicates, is a cycle in which higher temperatures are beginning to melt the arctic permafrost, which could release hundreds of billions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. … The permafrost holds 1 trillion tons of carbon, and as much as 10 percent of that could be released this century, Field said. Along with carbon dioxide, melting permafrost releases methane, which is 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. … Currently, about 10 billion tons of carbon is emitted each year.”
On March 10, the Los Angeles Times reported that “scientists at a Copenhagen summit on climate change said sea levels will rise much faster than predicted, perhaps 3 feet by 2100, because of melting polar ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland. … An accelerated thaw … could be devastating for 600 million people who live in low-lying areas.”
How have humans responded to the climate scientists who have studied this situation? Have they reduced global warming?
Humans have actually responded by accelerating the destruction of their biosphere. After agreeing in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 to reduce CO2 emissions to 1990 levels, they subsequently increased them. The United States has increased its emissions by about 15 percent since 1997. The giant nations of India and China, more than one-third of humanity, have been increasing carbon emissions even more rapidly.
But this is incredible! What are they thinking?
The New York Times reported on January 22, 2009, that a recent U.S. poll found that “global warming came in last among 20 voter concerns; it trailed issues like addressing moral decline and decreasing the influence of lobbyists. Only 30 percent of the voters deemed global warming to be ‘a top priority’ compared with 35 percent in 2008.”
As a politician, President Obama and his team are constrained by the public’s denial of biospheric reality. Early on, Obama rejected the idea of increasing taxes on gasoline, a critical though still small part of the overall carbon tax that Hansen has urged. There is no evidence yet that either America or the other major nations of the world are prepared to take the radical steps necessary to avoid global biospheric catastrophe.
The Obama team is trying its best, with a “cap-and-trade” proposal that would set a cap on carbon emissions. But even this half-measure has little future. The L.A. Times reported on April 24, 2009, that the cap-and-trade “plan has produced one of Congress’ rare displays of bipartisanship—in opposition to Obama. Many moderates and coal-state Democrats have joined with Republicans in opposing the ‘cap and trade’ plan.”
Given all this, is there any reason to hope?
Hope lies in the fact that the Earth can still be saved, and the fact that humans actually know what they need to do to save it. They can eliminate coal plants within a decade, institute carbon taxes, make massive investments in renewable energy and automobiles powered by renewable energy, phase out those running on fossil fuels, encourage movement into cities and mass transit to avoid wasteful use of autos, prioritize local production and possibly accelerate the development of safe nuclear power. Renewable wind power alone could meet much of America’s electricity needs. As an April 3, 2009, L.A. Times article stated: “Wind turbines off U.S. coastlines could potentially supply more than enough electricity to meet the nation’s current demand, the Interior Department reported Thursday.”
These steps are not only doable, but could spark an economic renaissance over the long term. At the moment, however, these technically doable measures are politically inconceivable.
But why? Why would human beings march like lemmings off a cliff? Why would they commit species suicide?
The fundamental problem is that the biospheric crisis has arisen too suddenly for human values and attitudes to adjust. Humans have pursued fossil-fuel-powered economic growth since the onset of the Industrial Revolution 150 years ago, culminating a millennia-long struggle to control rather than be prey to nature. This effort was largely successful, if you measure “success” by the number of humans now alive times the years they live. There is incomparably more human life today than ever before.
But now the behaviors and habits of mind which produced this great achievement have suddenly, in just the past 20 years, come to threaten life. The human psyche has been unable to adapt to this sudden change. Humans hope to maintain their present way of life, not yet understanding that they can no longer live as they have. The issue is not whether their standard of living will fall dramatically. It will. The real question is whether they can weather falling living standards while generating enough investment in renewable energy both to transform their economies and preserve their biosphere.
So you are saying that America—and all of humanity—faces challenges that have no precedent. Is there any great power that has ever corrected itself when faced with such problems?
Not really. America has clearly begun its decline and fall as a global power, and for the same reasons as the Roman, French and British empires before it. Civilizations rise by working hard, saving, investing at home while exploiting weaker economies abroad, producing surpluses that finance a rising standard of living. At some point, however, they find themselves consuming more than they produce and choose to maintain consumption by borrowing, which eventually becomes unsustainable.
The final stage is marked by economic collapse due to debts that cannot be repaid, accompanied by military overextension abroad, a focus on entertainment and spectacles at home, a selfish “What’s in it for me?” attitude among its elites and a decline in basic indicators of societal health. Despite America being the world’s richest and most militarily powerful nation, for example, in 2006 it ranked 25th in life expectancy and 34th in infant mortality, and a 2003 study ranked America 24th educationally out of 29 nations.
Just how serious is America’s current economic condition?
America’s household-debt-to-disposable-income ratio rose from less than 40 percent in 1952 to 133 percent in 2007, and bank indebtedness rose from the equivalent of 21 percent of GDP in 1980 to 116 percent in 2007. The Federal Reserve reports that total outstanding credit-card debt reached a record $951 billion in 2008, is rising dramatically, and the personal savings rate has dropped from 9 percent in the 1990s to 0.6 percent in 2007—though it has recently begun to rise somewhat. Its deficit is 12.3 percent of gross domestic product, the highest level since 1945, and will likely grow as more money is needed to stave off financial collapse and politicians whittle back tax increases or spending cuts. By late 2008, 37 percent of all manufactured goods sold in America were imported, nearly four times the level in 1978. Manufacturing employment has hit a 60-year low.
I take it these problems have affected the rest of the world?
The World Bank has predicted that the global economy will shrink in 2009 for the first time in more than half a century and that the decline in global trade would be the biggest since the 1930s. Private money invested in so-called emerging countries is likely to fall from $928 billion in 2007 to $165 billion this year. In Europe, manufacturing has already suffered its biggest decline since the Second World War.
Earth’s TV news mentioned a stimulus package. Will this work?
No one knows. After allowing its manufacturing base to deteriorate in the 1980s, America grew through an “Internet bubble” in the 1990s and “housing bubble” in the 2000s, i.e., growth produced by borrowing for, and foreign investment in, unsustainable economic activity. The stimulus package amounts to a “deficit bubble,” i.e., borrowing trillions from future generations in an attempt to jump-start the economy.
It is hard to believe this stimulus won’t produce some sort of a short-term growth “bump.” But the question is what will come afterwards.
What do you mean?
Nobody has yet explained how this borrowed capital will be used to build new high-growth, high-income and job-creating economic sectors capable of restoring U.S. economic strength from the bottom up. American manufacturing workers earning upwards of $25,000 a year cannot compete against Chinese workers earning $2,750 and Vietnamese workers earning $1,680 a year in today’s globalized economy. Were America to have hopes of reviving its economy beyond the stimulus it would need now to be urgently convening joint industry-government-academic panels to develop industries of the future—in renewable energy, robotics, telecommunication, health care and so forth—in which it could have a competitive advantage.
As a nation, the United States should, for example, be mobilizing to compete with China, which has recently announced plans to lead the world in producing electric cars.
It is not doing so?
No. If American leaders continue to borrow trillions from the future and yet cannot create strong U.S. job-creating economic sectors at home, especially ones that address the biospheric crisis, these gigantic debts will impoverish Americans for decades to come.
But this means America’s present economic leaders are conducting the greatest economic gamble in world history, with little evidence that it will succeed!
Precisely. Humans, understandably, make decisions about the future based on their previous experience of life. Paul Volcker, perhaps America’s most respected financial expert, said on February 20, 2009, that “I don’t remember any time, maybe even the Great Depression, when things went down quite so fast. It’s broken down in the face of almost all expectation and prediction.”
But although the past may have no relevance to the present situation, policy- and opinion makers confidently propose solutions based upon it.
Conservatives, for example, simply ignore the fact that the private sector has collapsed and continue to support the very “pro-market” policies that created the present crisis. Meanwhile, liberals look fondly back to policies that worked in the Depression of the 1930s, forgetting that America was then a young, isolationist power with a small military and enormous industrial potential. Today it is an aging “late capitalist” global power with a failed banking sector, weak economic base, and is wasting enormous resources waging wars it cannot win and maintaining a global network of military bases it no longer needs.
Who are the people responsible for these economic gambles?
Lawrence Summers makes economic policy, and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, his disciple, implements it. But Summers is now violating his previous intellectual position of opposing large government deficits and is trying to convince foreign governments to buy U.S. debt after spending years encouraging them not to do so. The N.Y. Times reported on April 19, 2008, that “Mr. Summers has been sharply critical of current American fiscal policy and the way that Asia sustains borrowing by the United States by continuing to purchase government debt. During a visit to Mumbai in March last year, Mr. Summers warned the Reserve Bank of India of the United States’ ‘unsustainable and dangerous’ current-account deficit.”
While serving at the Treasury Department in the 1990s, Summers fought efforts to regulate risky hedge funds and pushed to eliminate the Glass-Steagall Act separating commercial and investment banking, key steps in America’s banking collapse.
You can’t be serious! Why would America put a man who had so harmed the economy in charge of rescuing it?
Summers symbolizes a core American problem: It has few economic, financial or business leaders capable of saving it. Its financial leaders destroyed both their own companies and the American economy. Virtually all its economists failed to predict the collapse of the economy, their minimal responsibility, and even today spurn the advice of the few who did—such as Nouriel Roubini’s call for nationalizing its banks.
But you say that President Obama, the single most powerful human being on Earth, understands this. Can he not turn things around?
Obama is clearly the most gifted leader America has elected in the postwar era. And to his credit, Obama has already proposed investing more in renewable energy than any previous president. But his hands are largely tied. When Franklin Roosevelt took office as president in March 1933, an economic depression had dragged on for 30 months, unemployment was near 25 percent and the public was desperate for change. Obama took office only a few months after the latest economic collapse became evident, and the public is not yet ready to make the major changes that are clearly needed.
But I thought Obama was elected on a platform of “change.”
Although 83 percent of the public wanted a “change” from the previous president’s policies, they are not yet ready to change by undertaking the painful shifts necessary to save their nation and planet. It is encouraging that Americans voted for a future-oriented political leader. But there is no evidence yet that they are ready to secure their future.
OK, here’s another thing I don’t understand. Why is America waging wars abroad if it sees its top priority as restoring its economy at home?
America finds itself in the same position as many other declining empires in their final years: economically weakened at home by self-interested elites and overextended abroad, bogged down in wars it cannot win but is unable to abandon.
The major geopolitical event of the past decade has been the rise in power of violently anti-American forces in the Middle East, largely due to the previous U.S. president’s launching and then bungling two wars. He invaded, occupied and then handed over Iraq to members of the Shiite tribe allied with the anti-U.S. Iran, immeasurably strengthening and emboldening it. He then murdered and tortured innumerable innocent civilians in Iraq, spawning a new generation of anti-American fanatics. After throwing out the anti-American Taliban in Afghanistan, he abandoned it. The Taliban regrouped and now control 70 percent of Afghanistan and, more ominously, a growing area within neighboring nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Can’t Obama reverse the foolish policies of his predecessor?
Obama wisely opposed the Iraq war but has unwisely committed to winning in Afghanistan—an unachievable goal under present conditions. Neighboring Pakistan, a highly populated, nuclear-armed, failed state, is by far Obama’s biggest foreign-policy problem. The United States has pushed its enemies east from Afghanistan into Pakistan, where they are gaining power and territory, and destabilizing the government. He is likely to be sucked further and further into the quicksand of Mideast violence, wasting even more funds desperately needed to rebuild the U.S. economy.
There must be a deeper reason why human beings can so blindly continue marching toward their death and the death of their planet.
Existential psychology and evolutionary theory explain much of human behavior. Human beings are born with a drive to live but suffer great emotional pain when learning between the ages of 3 and 8 that they will one day die. They cope with this pain by denying it, and over time denial becomes a way of life. Today, individuals deny not only their individual deaths but the end of their species. Many evolutionary theorists believe that formerly adaptive evolutionary behaviors have become maladaptive so suddenly that humans may not be able to change in time to survive.
You’ve described the technological shifts needed to save the biosphere. What kind of political changes are needed?
President Obama needs, above all, to rally both Americans and the world for fair and shared sacrifice. Just as one cannot expect Americans as a whole to make needed investments by cutting consumption unless its elites lead the way, America cannot expect nations like China and India to reduce their carbon emissions unless it first cuts back on its own. Given the seriousness of the economic plight facing most people, America needs to move decisively and quickly to adopt European social-welfare policies.
Is there any chance this could actually occur?
There are some limited historical precedents for humans transforming their society when they felt their way of life was threatened. During World War II, for example, Americans accepted rationing, wage and price controls, and other measures that will clearly be needed to meet the biospheric crisis. The problem is that most societies until now have only been able to mobilize against a clearly defined enemy in times of war.
Today, there is no “enemy” to mobilize against, and no precedent whereby humans have mobilized to transform their own evolutionary drives.
So where does that leave them—and us?
Humanity is clearly at the most important turning point in its history. If this generation is able to create a renewable-energy economy, future humans will properly revere it and those now alive will live on in the grateful memories of their descendants.
If it cannot do so, its millions of years of evolution and the struggle of countless human generations for a better life will have ended in disaster. This generation will be cursed by its successors and, eventually, not be remembered at all.
Our mission, therefore, could not be more urgent. We may fail to save the human species. But at least we will not have failed to try. This is for us the noblest and highest duty we can undertake—as it is for human beings themselves.