I found the video below interesting and relevant to que topic of what some label as “climate doom”.
I think a more important question is whether we can stop a collapse of our ecosystem, which is a far greater and far reaching threat than global warming, the latter being only one factor leading to the former. The media keep talking about climate change rather than the looming threat of environmental collapse, I suppose because it’s much easier to deny climate change than it is to deny the reality of collapsing wildlife populations statistics, so they can play “both sides” on this issue. Sadly, online discussions tends to follow the issues the media focus on.
It’s true, climate change is just one aspect of a much broader pattern; even COVID ultimately stems from the same source, that is, humanity’s exploitation and destruction of nature. We might call the whole thing “ecocide”; another suggestion is “omnicide”.
I confess I stopped watching when the video reached the first highly misleading statement, on poverty. The video tries hard to give an even-handed perspective, balancing the terrible destruction of the ecology with progress in other areas. Given the stakes, and since this perspective is fundamental to most of the major and well-funded institutions in this area, it is critical that their claims be scrutinized.
The video is sponsored by the Bill Gates foundation, whose money derives from practices that Microsoft called “embrace, extend, and extinguish”, but which the US courts called “a series of exclusionary, anticompetitive, and predatory acts to maintain its monopoly power”.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the video repeats a well-worn misstatement about the reduction of poverty, which is a key tenet of the defenders of modern capitalism.
Economic growth has led to … the largest reduction in extreme poverty in human history.
A devastating report by Philip Alston, the UN’s outgoing special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, has put the lie to this claim once and for all. The Guardian article is required reading.
The report itself states:
The world is at an existential crossroads involving a pandemic, a deep economic recession, devastating climate change, extreme inequality, and an uprising against racist policies. Running through all of these challenges is the longstanding neglect of extreme poverty by many governments, economists, and human rights advocates.
By single-mindedly focusing on the World Bank’s flawed international poverty line, the international community mistakenly gauges progress in eliminating poverty by reference to a standard of miserable subsistence rather than an even minimally adequate standard of living. This in turn facilitates greatly exaggerated claims about the impending eradication of extreme poverty and downplays the parlous state of impoverishment in which billions of people still subsist.
This is what the video refers to as reducing “extreme” poverty. It means getting over the absurdly low income of $1.90/day. If the number is adjusted even slightly upwards, the apparent progress disappears.
Even before the pandemic, 3.4 billion people, nearly half the world, lived on less than $5.50 a day. That number has barely declined since 1990.
Alston explains how it works on the ground.
One of ‘miracle’ case studies always used is China. But I remember visiting China, and meeting with key people in charge of a taskforce eradicating extreme poverty, where it would be clear the discussion was how you could take [a] village or situation to get people the extra three cents a day [to get them over the threshold], not about how to improve their miserable situation. It was a statistical challenge.
As to the original point, I think it’s important to distinguish the following questions:
It is the last point that I find most worrying, and which the purely scientific perspective overlooks. Underlying the conventional approach is the assumption that people are basically rational and will “get it”, if only we give them enough time and the right information. And of course that’s not completely untrue: some people will get it.
But people aren’t all rational. The denial of reality doesn’t just happen. It has to be created and sustained by the power of delusion, of moha. This is a powerful psychological force, driven by the moral failure to accept personal responsibility for the consequences of one’s choices and actions. Delusion locks all ones’ guilt, confusion, and fear in the unconscious, terrified at the thought that all of these terrible things are my fault.
There fear curdles and goes rotten. But not for long. It erupts as violence and hate directed at the “other”, which is disguised by a relentless effort to twist and distort reality, to undermine the very possibility of reason and morality. And this is what we see today in the rise of authoritarianism in the US, China, Russia, India, Iran, Belarus, Poland, Brazil, the Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, the UK, and doubtless many places I have not heard of.
To respond effectively we need compassion and wisdom. Too much of the world is going in the wrong direction.
What can we do about it? Stop lying to ourselves would be a good start. Accept our responsibility for our actions. Change what we can and encourage others to do more. Make good trouble.
Are you worried when you hear about such things? That’s okay! It’s a worrying situation. Stress or anxiety are perfectly reasonable responses. But if your response is deflection and avoidance, rejection and reaction, you’re in denial.
Reality is not easy to bear, but it has one great feature: it’s real. It’s a start. There’s a reason why the first noble truth is dukkha. When we accept the reality, with clear eyes and courage, we have taken the first and hardest step. The longer you stay in denial, the harder that step will be.
Live as if each day the world might end, because one day it will.
This is the point I arrive at.
Is our current way of living sustainable? No
Is avoiding irreversible damage possible? No
Is it possible to prevent the utter destruction of the environment, human civilization, and possibly the human species? Yes
But - to Bhante’s point quoted above - are we going to do it?
In answer, did you see the US Presidential debate?
The most powerful nation in the world (for the moment, hard to say how long that will last at this point) can’t even come to the political agreement that it’s a problem. Forget solving it. Forget recognizing that it’s an existential threat. They can’t even reach consensus it’s a problem.
So yes, it seems unlikely. That’s just honesty.
So what do we do? I suppose lots of Metta, take personal responsibility for what we can change, educate ourselves and others, vote, and protest. Try and pull off a come-from-behind victory* for the environment and the human species.
*Hmmm… I have this vague sense sports metaphors contributed to the mess we’re in.
In the last few days physicists have released the first theoretical design for a fussion reactor that could (with some engineering advances in material science) achieve positive energy ratios, Canada moved to protect 3500 square kilometers of old growth forest, and China has committed to an aggressive new carbon target.
The climate has already changed of course, and many species are now extinct. But there are endangered species who still exist and 2.5 degrees of warming is much better than 3.0, etc. I think we should resist such all or nothing thinking as terms like “ecocide” suggest. As if the environment is a thing which can be killed only once.
It’s easy to look at the overall picture and get depressed. But there are small puddles of progress and, like all virtue which grows from small seeds, I think it’s better for us to focus on and celebrate these successes… even if you have to “get down on all fours and drink it up like a cow”!
Btw, this is nothing. Check out this technology - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJG3282QU4g
I enjoyed watching the video. Describing the economic theory of growth as an ideology is interesting. One way to explain it is that, by and large, our ancestors lived in scarcity hence the tendency to accumulate persists. The unpredictability of the future is mitigated through accumulation either in wealth, or knowledge, or both.
The relationship between efficiency and consumption is another interesting point. Enhancing our efficiency through technology increased our ability to predict phenomena including climate change. Certain biases in the way we predict the future persists in the sense that we impose an end in order to construct a scenario in a way that drives us to act. If the end of an era is seen as an inevitable rise of another one, then solutions to climate change would appear less purposive.
Did anyone encounter predictions on what would happen after the collapse of our civilization and mass extinction of other species we know of? It is difficult to conceive how the cycle of birth and death will cease to continue.
In a time with lots of bad news, I thought you might like to hear some good news about the environment. I got many of these from the environmentalist Michael Shellenberger.
From the 1920s to today, the number of people killed in environmental disasters has declined 92% despite the population increasing by nearly 400%.
We already grow enough food to feed 10B people. That number will rise by 30% by 2050 according to the UN.
Per capita carbon emissions have been declining in the US since 1975. US total emissions fell by 15% from 2005 to 2016.
There was a 25% decrease in forest area burned from 1998 to 2015. Over the last 35 years new tree growth exceeded loss “by an area the size of Texas and Alaska combined.” In Europe, the “an area of forest the size of Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, and Denmark combined grew back in Europe between 1995 and 2015.”
The amount of land used for agriculture peaked in the 1990s.
In 1990, 20% of people were malnourished. Today that number has declined to 11%, freeing 820 million people from hunger.
Not a single whale species is at risk of extinction.
Mass extinctions, at least five times, in the past.
So, mass extinctions are recurring events. In my view, this shows how the Indians described nature in accurate ways through their religions. The triple deity divides cosmic functions into creation (Brahma), preserving (Vishnu) and destruction (Shiva). It is somehow similar to how the lord Buddha described phenomena as rising, persisting and declining.
Portraying cosmic forces as deities or as three recurring phases can be a good strategy. It provides us with a rare and soothing vision of our insignificance.
Bhante, thank you for this reminder. COViD was a wake up call for many to the truth of impermanence, but it’s easy to get lulled into our little worlds and minds.
I have a volunteer position where I live in the US where I’ve become even more acquainted with emotional and mental human suffering. One thing that is striking is lack of social and economic supports for the people suffering, especially in what the rest of the world perceives as a wealthy nation. At the same time, suffering permeates all economic strata, and isn’t relieved by wealth alone. To me, ultimately the dhamma is the cure, but if people are stuck in horrendous poverty, war, environmental collapse, what chance will they have to encounter the dhamma? Much lower.
So I feel torn… In terms of donating money and time I spend more on Buddhism and monastics than on economic poverty (and the environment, which is directly connected).
Did the Buddha offer advice on how our dana should be distributed?
Perhaps MN.142 will provide the answer.
There are always endings. The problem is that new beginnings follow them, and that is what I am trying to address.
Climate change is caused by disrespect for nature, not valuing life. That is the cause and it began about 500 years ago when the dependence on nature began lessening due to scientific development and a more human-centered mindset emerged. This also was the origin of a decline in belief in divine retribution leading to the present position where humans feel invincible in their environment, able to act at will. These mistaken conceptions have now seen their effect begin to rise in the form of climate change and the pandemic, and this will be of equal duration to its cause. The next few centuries will see changes in the valuing of life on earth, and also a great sensitivity towards the relationship with the environment, which could achieve religious status, depending on the intensity of climate change and the ferocity of the pandemic. With the rise of secular mindfulness it seems certain Buddhism with its nature-based philosophy is set to provide the belief structure to fulfill these needs. Most of the research being done by Analayo deals with adapting Buddhist theory to secular practice, so that is the pulse of the movement.
I’ve noticed that you often seem to source your information from Shellenberger. Let’s see how reliable he is!
When someone is enthused about and described as an “environmentalist” by the right-wing extremists at Breitbart, we’re not off to a good start. As someone once quipped: if the nazis are on your side, you’re on the wrong side.
On its website it states that it is “committed to creating a new progressive politics, one that is large, aspirational, and asset-based.” "committed to modernizing environmentalism for the 21st century.”
However, that description ocludes its major agenda of promoting nuclear energy … while opposing any policy of reducing greenhouse gas emissions through putting a price on carbon (a.k.a. pricing the externality).
Joe Romm, one of the most respected writers on climate matters has repeatedly criticized Shellenberger’s views.
In a 2008 article, Breaking the technology breakthrough myth — Debunking Shellenberger & Nordhaus again he criticizes the key claim of the “Breakthrough Institute”, namely that solutions require “breakthroughs”, i.e. radical disruptive changes in technology.
In 2009 he wrote Don’t believe the fossil-fuel lies: Joining oil companies and conservatives, the Breakthrough Institute says we can reduce emissions without raising the cost of carbon pollution. It’s a fantasy.
The most effective and despicable disinformation campaign in U.S. history is ramping up again, trying to stop President Obama and Congress from passing a serious bill aimed at reversing our dangerous dependence on oil and polluting energy sources.
This campaign rests on three big lies:
- The threat posed by human-cause global warming has been significantly exaggerated.
- Making carbon polluters pay to emit or regulating greenhouse gas pollution would hurt the economy.
- The only viable solution to global warming and oil dependence is to eschew a price for carbon and regulations in favor of government spending on breakthrough technologies.
This disinformation campaign is almost entirely driven by fossil fuel companies and conservative media, politicians and think tanks. It is also advanced by the Breakthrough Institute and its president, Michael Shellenberger. His central myth – a science fiction fantasy, really – is that it would be possible to sharply reduce emissions without raising the cost of carbon pollution.
To the Breakthrough Institute, the only viable strategy is to entrust the future of humanity to miraculous breakthrough innovation. Its entire strategy just happens to be identical to the one GOP message guru Frank Luntz invented in his infamous 2002 strategy memo on how conservatives could pretend to care about global warming without actually doing anything: “We need to emphasize how voluntary innovation and experimentation are preferable to bureaucratic or international intervention and regulation.”
Shellenberger’s writings are now indistinguishable from those of right-wing deniers like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which is probably why CEI quotes them both at length in a recent piece, writing, “As Roger Pielke, Jr. and Michael Shellenberger astutely observe …” If it walks like a denier, quacks like a denier and is praised by a denier, we should all just duck.
Romm goes on with the details of how exactly Shellenberger is wrong, and I’d encourage you to read it in full.
Let’s now look at a few specific claims. Checking facts, always fun!
This is rather irrelevant and somewhat misleading. I am not sure whether the actual figures are correct, but a quick perusal shows that the figures for natural disasters are highly skewed by exceptional events, such as the floods of the Yellow River and Yangtze in China, that caused the deaths of millions of people in 1931 and 1938.
Obviously flood control and other engineering efforts have reduced the death toll from such events, but this has little to do with the state of the environment. However, the misleading part is that this is not about deaths from environmental causes, but only from disasters. If we consider environmental deaths we see a rather different picture.
Thus the WHO estimates that deaths from environmental causes are twelve time the current death toll of COVID-19 (which itself is caused by environmental destruction).
Shellenberger is sanguine where others are not.
According to the report, about 500 million people live in areas that are turning quickly to desert. These millions of people are increasingly vulnerable to heat waves and floods, and may soon find their homes unlivable.
I won’t go through all the other points that you repeat from Shellenberger, pleasant as it is to sharpen my knowledge on important matters. I will, however, respond to this point:
This is highly misleading. The following is a WHO report from 2020:
The latest edition of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, published today, estimates that almost 690 million people went hungry in 2019 – up by 10 million from 2018, and by nearly 60 million in five years. High costs and low affordability also mean billions cannot eat healthily or nutritiously.
after steadily diminishing for decades, chronic hunger slowly began to rise in 2014 and continues to do so.
This is not taking into account the impact of COVID-19, which the report says:
could tip over 130 million more people into chronic hunger by the end of 2020
There is no cause for self-congratulation when we live in a world where a tiny proportion of individuals are lavished with inconceivable wealth, while billions live in poverty and chronic hunger. Climate change most immediately threatens the lives of these weakest and most vulnerable. It is not only an existential threat to humanity, it is an moral threat to our humanity.
Bhante, Thank you for the long response. I have a few thoughts on your comments.
You first imply that we should listed to the environmentalist Michael Schellenberger because he is not a climate scientist. You then, ironically go on to post multiple articles written by people that are not climate scientists. What counts is the quality of their data and arguments, not the letters behind their name. For the record, Schellenberger has been an prominent environmentalist for decades. He was named a Time magazine “Heroes of the Environment” and a winner of the Green Book Award. He testified before the US congress Committee on Science, Space, and Technology earlier this year.
You also imply he is beyond the pail because he was quoted by a conservative website. The idea that someone is verboten because they are quoted by a source that you don’t approve of politically is a poor reason to discount what he says. For example, sources that you often cite like the NYTimes and the Guardian pushed for the Iraq war. But I don’t consider everything ever written or sourced by them to be off limits.
You cite several articles by people that disagree with him but all of which significantly mischaracterize his views. For example, you quote Romm saying, “To the Breakthrough Institute, the only viable strategy is to entrust the future of humanity to miraculous breakthrough innovation.” This is entirely wrong. Schellenberger advocates for building currently models of nuclear reactors which are safe and emit almost no carbon or particulates.
On to the claims!
“From the 1920s to today, the number of people killed in environmental disasters has declined 92% despite the population increasing by nearly 400%.”
You showed a graph that supported my claim completely but claimed it was irrelevant because there are fewer natural disasters now and that modern engineering saves lives. The first part is not true, there is no trend in the number or severity of natural disasters, but the second part is exactly the point! Modern engineering, all of which require large amounts of energy are the exact reason why the number of deaths from natural disasters has plummeted. Even just the ability to easily hop in a car and flee an oncoming hurricane has saved countless lives.
You post some articles (including by a journalist who is very much not a climate scientist) that show that some people die from the effects of pollution and other environmental issues. This is true! Let’s do better, perhaps by taking Schellenberger’s advice and building more nuclear plants. In any case, the number of lives saved by the use of modern energy systems far outweighs the lives lost to pollution.
“We already grow enough food to feed 10B people. That number will rise by 30% by 2050 according to the UN.”
You cite several alarming-seeming articles from the popular press to indicate that things could get much worse, but miss the overall point. As with the previous claim, a worsening environment is bad for some, but the use of modern technology is vastly better for many more. It is the same with food production. Yes, a warming climate will make some farms less productive, but getting modern technology in the hands of the global poor can vastly increase food production. I witnessed this first-hand in rural China. When I first started visiting, the people were skin-and-bone and worked hours every day in the hot sun in rice paddies. The last time I visited, modern tractors dominated, the people grew gardens for fun, even the villagers were plump, and absolutely nobody was interested in going back to the bad old days. For a scientific assessment, I suggest the following: https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aabdc4/pdf
You end with an article talking about the flooding in Bangladesh. Yes, Bangladesh is a sadly impoverished place that needs compassion and practical help. Yes, it flood every year, and this year was especially bad. As you well know, Bangladesh has had floods since before the dawn of pre-history. After all, like the Netherlands, it is build below sea level. Unlike the Netherlands, Bangladesh lacks the capital, technology, and investment to build the necessary levies to keep it safe. The Netherlands once faced the same kinds of flooding, but the use of capital intensive building projects have rendered it save for a century. That is what Bangladesh needs.
It might be appropriate to sign off with a little anecdote from Michael Schellenberg: “In 1976…John Briscoe went to Bangladesh…Briscoe had earned a PhD in environmental engineering at Harvard and went to Bangladesh seeking to use his skills to help lift people out of poverty. Briscoe ended up in a village that was flooded by several meters of water for one-third of the year. Locals suffered from disease and malnutrition. Life expectancy was less than fifty. But when Briscoe heard of plans to build an embankment around the village to protect it from the annual flooding and provide it with irrigation, he opposed it. Briscoe, a Marxist at the time, thought the embankment would simply concentrate wealth in the hands of the rich. Twenty-two years later, Briscoe returned to the village in Bangladesh and was surprised by what he found. The villagers were healthy, the kids were in school, and instead of rags they wore clothes. Life expectancy had increased to nearly seventy. Women were more independent, and there were vibrant markets for food. Briscoe asked people what had changed. ‘The embankment!’ they said. It had been built in the 1980s, after Briscoe left. It prevented flooding and allowed for the controlled use of water for irrigation…The villagers credited the big infrastructure projects for their prosperity.”
Climate change denialism used to be easy to recognize - people would argue that either climate change wasn’t occuring or that it was part of a natural planetary cycle, and human actions had no to minimal impact on that cycle.
As the evidence has continued to mount, that view has become much rarer.
So we’ve moved to a new rhetorical phase, where instead of denying climate change, we find the argument has shifted to denying the severity of climate change, and/or denying the necessity of taking extreme action to stop it. This rhetorical approach often expresses itself less directly. It shows up as asking tangential questions. Are we sure this particular event is linked to climate change? Or making claims of positive trends in discussions climate change. Or picking a detail of something said and challenging that. It seeks to sow doubts and complacency, leading to inaction, to maintaining the status quo.
The problem is, if you look at what the science is saying, the idea that the severity of climate change is low, and that we do not need to act quickly and decisively, is not supported. Climate scientists, those who know the evidence, are all advocating for strong and immediate actions.
I’m not sure how to combat this climate change denialism, phase 2. Evidence has never worked well. That just leads to a battle of links. I do think it is helpful to be aware of how the rhetoric had changed, and realize that just because someone leads with, “hey, I believe climate change is happening,” doesn’t mean they aren’t denying the consequences, that we need to take the necessary next step to respond to what’s happening.
It’s not fair to reduce differences in view to a battle of links, implying it’s all heat, no light. This isn’t a twitter war. I can only speak for myself, but I’m perfectly capable of learning and adjusting my views after I engage with thoughtful and informed people, and I’m grateful that forums exist where that can happen. This is hardly the only one. Environmentalism may be one of the few areas of politics that isn’t hopelessly divided along strict partisan lines.
Labeling people who disagree with you as “phase 2 climate deniers” isn’t accurate or helpful. Phase 1 climate change deniers still very much exist and they are legion. The most powerful person in the world is one, and the most popular news network in the US perpetuates that view, despite one of the Murdoch scions earnest efforts to change that.
I’d suggest this as more a nuanced schema of the differences in viewpoints on the need for action on the environment – not that I view it as authoritative, but it provides context and makes room for the hard work of constructive dialogue. No one said consensus building is easy.
I’m aware that Alex Steffen, like anyone, can be waved off as delusional or politically compromised, but the piece I linked to stands on its own merits. It’s a framework, not an argument.
Bhante, it seems to me that you have a predisposition towards democracy. Do you really think democracy is the best system to tackle environment issue?
Lately there are many rhetoric to undermine China, by saying that they are an authoritarian country, hence they are no good. But China has done amazing things, while democratic superpower like USA has done a lot of damage here and there. The global terrorism that happens now is credited to them and UK, both a democratic government. Certainly it was not the fault of the whole people inside the country, but the system do produce those greedy elites who exploits other countries. Even if the media throws around concern about the environment, will the elites care?
I’m an Indonesian which is a democratic country too. It is a fact that my government is corrupt. Not all of them, but too many. It feels to me that this is one of the traits in every democratic system. Hence, I’m compelled to think for the future, progress in environment sustainability will minimally ever come from democratic government, because the elites are busy with other matters. Perhaps authoritarian country like China might actually be a better candidate. So I don’t see any significance of government system towards a better environment.
In case anyone wants to learn about CCP, please see this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IKxQDezR7Bg