Saturday, 13 November 2021

Climate Crisis: Bangladesh May Drown, Pakistan May Face Severe Droughts

An Indian friend of mine, Sri Sagar Dhara, who is attending the COP 26 meeting, has sent a report from Glasgow on the prospects for Bangladesh and Pakistan in the year 2100. Being a South Asian (Indian) myself, I read it with great interest, which caused the following thoughts to occur in my mind.

    Please read the highly interesting article of Sagar first. Link

https://countercurrents.org/2021/11/cop26-by-2100-bangladesh-may-drown-pakistan-likely-to-face-severe-water-shortage-fear-experts/

Then my comments.

Saral’s Comments

I thank Sagar Dhara for this article focusing attention, unusually, on Bangladesh and Pakistan, two of India’s “dear” neighbors, who after all are no small islands in the Pacific or the Indian Ocean. How dear they are to us has been demonstrated by the recent NRC exercise in Assam and the three wars at India’s Western front. The description of the plight of the people of Bangladesh and Pakistan in the near future is, I hope, realistic, coming as they do from knowledgeable people from the two countries. But Sagar’s conclusion? Is it at all realistic? And his exhortation to us Indians? What chance does it have of being accepted?

Empty Idealism or Down-to-Earth Realism

Sagar writes: “…. should India help? As a country that believes in vasudaiva kutumbakam (the whole world is a family), of course India should help … .” “Vasudaiva kutumbakam” is a noble, but, sorry to say, empty ideal. I have heard/read it as a slogan a few times in the speeches and writings generated by outwardly idealist NGO activists. The slogan itself was perhaps coined by some sage in ancient India some three thousand years ago. But today, it is a far cry from the reality. I do not know when “India” ever believed in this ideal.
    In the Christian Western world, I have more often heard the cynical saying: “Everybody for himself and God for all”. That is also roughly the conclusion of human ethologists on the reality of human nature. The current treatment meted out to illegal migrants at the Polish-Belarussian border corroborates this.
    Empty idealism devoid of all realism is the bane of NGO welfare activities. Two years ago, at a big gathering of Fridays for Future, I heard a speech by a young woman who is active in the efforts to save illegal African migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea and help them reach the shores of Europe and enjoy a better life there. She asserted inter alia “every human being has a right to choose the country where (s)he wants to live.” I do not know where other than in her fertile imagination this right has been codified. But I know that her activities are promoting fascism in Europe as a reaction.
    A German politician, the then President of the state, whose traditional task it is to give idealist speeches in high-flown language, said in 2015 or 2016, at the height of the illegal migrants crisis in Germany, something like this: “Our hearts are very big, but our capacity is limited”, whereby he stretched his arms on two sides to make the sign of embracing people. He meant Germany’s capacity to accept immigrants.

No Solution ?

Sagar writes, the people of these two countries would suffer for “no fault of theirs”. That is roughly true. But not entirely. Nobody else is to blame other than those Bangaldeshis (and West-Bengalis) who in the past went farther and farther south, clear cut parts of the Sunderbans and settled down on the very low-lying delta areas. Such flood-prone and regularly cyclone-ravaged low lying areas should not have been inhabited at all in the first place.
    I understand, population pressure did not leave many ordinary poor people any other choice. But surely, it is not the Western imperialists that created the population pressure in Bangladesh (and West Bengal). Bangladesh became an independent country in 1971 when its population amounted to 65.5 million. Today, i.e. in 2020 figures, it stands at 164.7 million. In the same period, Pakistan’s population rose from 59.73 to 220.9 million (Source: Internet, Google). The leadership of these countries, usually highly educated and well-informed, could have done something at least in this area of policy, which has been fully under their control. If they had, the suffering today would have been much less.
    Sagar reports: a principal scientific officer from Pakistan, when asked, “Does Pakistan have a solution?”, replied “No”. An apparently rich farmer from Bangladesh, who, mind you, has the financial means to travel to Glasgow and stay there for a few days, suggested the solution that India should accept climate refugees from Bangladesh. This is surprising, capitulation!
    It is true that, climate change being a global problem, Bangladesh and Pakistan cannot tackle all their climate change related problems on their own. But nor can India do that. And in the future, India too will require help from the countries to tackle climate change impacts on its territory.
    So can anything be done at all? At least to mitigate the bad effects of climate change, if not to solve the whole problem? I think yes. World Bank sources say that at present, the population growth rates of the three countries are as follows: Bangladesh - 1%, Pakistan - 2%, India - 1%. That means, at current rates, every year, the population of Bangladesh is growing by 1.64 mil., that of Pakistan by 2.29 mil., and that of India by 13.8 mil. Obviously, in this area at least, these countries could do much more to take off the pressure. This is the easiest thing to do. Other things are much more difficult. For, as I formulated two-three years ago as an impossibility theorem:

“It is impossible to fulfill the continuously growing demands, wishes, aspirations and ambitions (100 per cent renewables for instance) of a continuously growing world population while our resource base is continuously dwindling and the ability of nature to absorb man-made pollution is continuously diminishing. It is a lunatic idea that in a finite world infinite growth is possible.”

    Dr. Manmohan Singh, the then PM of India, said already some 10 years ago, he had the most difficult task of creating 10 million new jobs every year. How can then the present-day government create jobs in India also for the climate refugees of Bangladesh and Pakistan?

Monday, 1 November 2021

THE COMING COLLAPSE

On the eve of the COP 26, UN’s world climate conference (to begin in Glasgow on 31. October. 2021), Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the host country UK, said in Rome the following:

“This is our memento mori,” (‘Remember that you will die’.) ….“After its fall, the level of education in Rome, the construction skills went down, the marvelous villas were lost, even the livestock shrunk in size. The same thing can happen to us if we don’t act against climate change now.” He said further that global warming will spur “colossal migrations, shortages of food and water, and many other conflicts.”

Johnson was optimistic that modern societies have the capacity to mitigate the negative effects of humans on the planet. (https://www.rt.com/uk/538937-boris-johnson-ancient-rome/). I am not so optimistic. I am of the opinion that particularly modern societies are not capable of mitigating this impending collapse.
    I have dealt with this topic in an earlier short essay posted on this blog on 1. October 2019 (
http://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2019/10/is-collapse-of-our-civilization.html). Recently, I read a review article on some books on this topic published in the journal  Nature (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00436-3). Thereupon I wrote another short piece in which I explained why I disagree with the politician Boris Johnson as well as with the scholar-authors reviewed in the said article in Nature. It is reproduced below:

oooooo

I sincerely thank Nadarajah for posting this. Even to read just a book review is better than not to read anything on this unpleasant subject simply because the books are too discouragingly long. While reading the review, the following thoughts occurred to me:
    I am convinced that our present-day civilization is heading for a collapse, for I cannot see that we humans have resolved to do the
needful to mitigate, let alone avert the various crises converging to result in an inevitable collapse. The first and the most important things to do for the purpose would have been to stop all further economic and population growth in the world. But the leaders of the world have not resolved to do that. On the contrary, they are all actively pursuing the goal of continuous economic growth and passively tolerating the continuous spontaneous growth of world population. The collapse would not be like a big-bang bomb blast, it would happen gradually, but, from now on, more or less rapidly. In fact, the process has already begun.

Societies, Civilizations, Cultures

If we are allowed to go only by the short presentations in the review, the authors of the books have dealt mainly with the collapse of societies that emerged in different particular civilizations obtaining at the time.
    Most people use these terms interchangeably, meaning the same thing. But it is useful to differentiate between them. Let us use the term society in the following sense: a more or less large group of people living under more or less similar social and religious hierarchical systems having more or less same/similar social laws, norms, rituals and moral codes. And let us use the term civilization to imply a certain level of state formation, a certain level of material and
technological development covering housing, clothing, transportation, communication, techniques of production of food and other useful things, formalized laws such as criminal laws, property laws and laws governing other material relations which are generally brought into force by the rulers of the particular historical time.
    Here I do not intend to elaborate on the terms societies, cultures and civilizations. It may suffice to give a few examples: Samuel Huntington gave his most famous book the title “Clash of Civilizations”, whereas in its German translation, it is called “Kampf der Kulturen. We in India e.g. speak of Hindu culture (with its sub-cultures), Muslim culture etc., although we are all, more or less, living in the same civilization, half industrial and half rural, where e.g. both motor vehicles and bullock carts are used as means of transportation.
    Of course these things are always in a state of flux, border lines between the terms are often blurred. But I hope readers understand what I mean. I would like to conclude this paragraph with a quote. Knowledgeable people use the word “culture” in its social-anthropological meaning, namely “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” In this meaning “culture” includes also “the material organization of life”, that is, “social and economic
institutions.” [Edwards, Paul (ed.) 1967]

What is collapsing Today?

I am a bit disappointed that the reviewed authors have addressed the subject as so many case studies, which they have done with a ‘retrospectoscope’. Of course, the collection is very good history writing. But our present-day civilization is quite different from those of the past, those of the Rapa Nui, the medieval Mayans, the ancient Sumerians etc., and even from the high civilization of the classical Romans.
    It is different in that none of the past ones were
global like our present one. In none of the past civilizations countries were so dependent on imports and exports of goods and technologies for their economic prosperity or survival as the countries of today. To mention just a few more examples, there simply was no global, not to speak of instant, communication before our times, no cheap means of travelling all over the world, no great similarity of the life-style of the rich and the middle classes in all countries, no similarity of the diseases they suffer from (Covid-19 e.g.) and the healing technologies they use, no identity of the knowledge they impart to their students etc. etc.
    Of course, the
cultures are not converging yet. Their differences still remain, but the gaps are slowly closing, The different religions are still there. And although English has become the lingua franca all over the world, the vernacular languages are not disappearing, on the contrary. These two things – religions and vernacular languages – are becoming more and more the cores of cultural identities that are often causing conflicts. But that is a different subject.
    Our present-day civilization is different in another very important respect. Whereas in the previous ones, energy supply for work was mainly based on human and animal labor, that of ours is mainly based on fossil fuels. Whereas the former sort – human and animal labor – was eminently renewable, fossil fuels are eminently nonrenewable, hence ultimately exhaustible. Wind and solar radiation also played a substantial part in the production methods of previous civilizations – wind as the power behind sailing ships and wind mills and the warmth of solar radiation as the main factor in growth of vegetation and food crops. They do not play such great roles in our present-day civilization.
    Two additional important differences are: (a) in the quantity and type of
man-made pollutions: In the previous civilizations, most pollutants were biodegradable. Wastes that were not recycled were rare in the past. Today it is just the opposite. (b) Today’s most dangerous man-made pollution, high rates of emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere are going to change the global temperature for perhaps a million years, making the Earth uninhabitable.
    The cases of collapse studied by the learned historians were singular and isolated, occurring in different times and caused by different factors. There were of course factors that were common to all these cultures and civilizations, e.g. steady
population growth throughout history, development of class societies, greed of oppressive ruling classes etc. They surely played some role in their history, but not necessarily the decisive ones in their collapse. Resilience, revival or replication was possible because of continued existence of sufficient renewable resources and of further possibilities of migration to greener pastures that were sparsely populated and/or where the local populations were militarily not strong enough to resist aggression.
    When, however, our present-day civilization collapses, which is happening in front of our eyes (see e.g. the article by
Paul Kingsnorth posted by Sajai Jose on 29.10. on this list), it cannot be salvaged. It is already overpopulated, there are no satisfactory possibilities of large-scale migration to greener pastures any more, the nonrenewable resources so very essential for running its over-complex economies will have been gone forever, and many parts of the Earth may finally and irreversibly have become uninhabitable.
    Let me finish this text with two quotes from Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, whose disciple I regard myself to be:
   
Georgescu-Roegan (1971/1981: 296) calls the supplies of nonrenewable energy sources and other minerals in low-entropy state “the limited dowry of mankind’s existence on Earth”. A dowry is not only a limited but also a one-off gift, Therefore, he comes to the logical conclusion:

“Even with a constant population and a constant flow per capita of mined resources, mankind's dowry will ultimately be exhausted if the career of the human species is not brought to an end earlier by other factors.” (ibid)

On the fate of our present-day civilization, he wrote in a fit of pessimism,

"Will mankind listen to any program that implies a constriction of its addiction to exosomatic comfort? Perhaps the destiny of man is to have a short, but fiery, exciting and extravagant life rather than a long, uneventful and vegetative existence. Let other species, – the amoebas, for example – which have no spiritual ambitions, inherit an Earth still bathed in plenty of sunshine." (Georgescu-Roegen 1972/1976: 35)     

    I do not quite agree with NGR. I do not think the human species would disappear from this Earth altogether. We are far too intelligent for that, far too ingenious. Our descendants would survive, in somewhat still inhabitable pockets left behind after the collapse, but in much smaller numbers. They would however live in a different civilization and with different cultures.

References:

Edwards, Paul. ed. (1967) Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1967. New York].

Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas (1971/1981) Entropy Law and the Economic Process, Harvard University Press. Cambridge MA (US).

Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas (1972/1976) Energy and Economic Myths. New York: Pergamon Press

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Once More on Resources and Population – 2021

 

I recently had occasion and need to write again on the above subject – in a google-group mailing list called Radical Ecological Democracy. I am reproducing the correspondence. The context should be easily clear.

 24.06.2021

It seems to me that every generation of thinking young people feel compelled to rediscover simple truths, actually truisms, and invent the wheel again and again.
    That about 90 percent of all resources used by our present-day economies do not grow like trees or fall from the sky like sunshine, and hence must be mined are commonplace knowledge. Even the bronze-age people knew that for making bronze they had to dig the raw materials out of the earth.
    That such materials are nonrenewable and hence exhaustible have also become well-known since at least 1972, when the book Limits to Growth was published.
    The idea and the knowledge of limits to availability of such resources are known ever since Malthus formulated in the late 18th century his famous population theory.
    That our whole industrial way of living inevitably pollutes the environment can be seen even by laypersons with their own eyes, and that since the beginning of the industrial revolution three hundred years ago.
    Yet, few drew the necessary conclusions from this knowledge. One big exception was our own Gandhiji, whom I consider to have been the first Green thinker-leader of modern times. Some hundred years ago, he wrote the following:

“The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom [the UK] is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”

 

    When Gandhiji wrote this (1928), India meant the whole British India that included today’s Pakistan and Bangladesh. The population of this huge subcontinent has since then swollen from the then 300 million to today’s ca.1700 million. Yet, not many, not even the NGOs and the environmental activists of the world are daring to talk about this problem. Politicians and famous economists of the world, also those of India, are still blabbering about economic growth, in best cases, about sustainable growth, green growth, Green New Deal, renewable energy, electric cars etc.
    Thankfully, here and there, a few soft voices of reason can be heard. Phrases like “physical limits to economic growth”, “community of monks living on a mountain top” or “a resource efficient population” (Tom Abeles) could be heard in the RED list. But still nobody dares talk about the number of humans that can sustainably live on the earth. In Europe, some two years ago, a group of top economists asked in a petition the EU-leaders to follow an economic policy of de-growth. But even they had no idea of how today’s 8 billion human population growing to 10 billion by 2050 would be able to live sustainably.
    In the meantime, we are getting reports of famine from Madagaskar, Yemen and Tigray, in the year 2021. That reminds me of Malthus. But we do hear a lot about biodiversity loss and X’tinction rebellion.

With greetings from

Saral Sarkar

                                                    

On Sun, 27 Jun 2021, 12:14 Ashish Kothari, <ashishkothari@riseup.net> wrote:

Saralji, as you do raise this issue several times, how about if you told us what you think is a human population that can be sustainable, and under what conditions.

ashish

27.06. – 2.7.2021

 Dear Ashish, Mari Marcel, Britt, Ratheesh and all who have read my intervention of 24/25.6.2021

 I am glad to note that you have reacted to my persistent efforts to direct your attention to the huge problem of overpopulation that mankind has been facing since long. I have been publishing my thoughts on this and related problems since 1983, on the population problem since 1993 – not as an academic, but as an eco-socialist activist. At the end of this contribution I will give some references and links to my relevant publications. Here I want to respond only briefly to your reactions.

    I know why many people are afraid of broaching the issue of population. It is often precarious to speak of the population problem as a problem of too many humans. You might be scolded as a “fascist” or “racist” or “misogynic man”. I have suffered such scolding a few times. A famous Bangladeshi eco-feminist family friend of ours reproaches (or used to reproach) all who say (said) that Bangladesh is/was overpopulated for allegedly wanting to “depopulate Bangladesh”.

 (1) My case for Population Control

 (a) Most of us humans want to defend biodiversity. And we are worried about the ongoing sixth extinction. Yet we are afraid of mentioning the main cause of biodiversity loss: our own omissions and commissions. It is taking place not only because of us inexorably pursuing our own economic interests, but also because of our growing numbers with our ever-growing “basic needs” and “pleasures”. Both factors are constantly goading us into expanding our economic zones and our habitats into territories of other species. Soon there would be “no room for wild animals”. It is a fundamental principle/law of ecology that in any habitat, if one of the species living there grows too much, that is neither good for that particular species nor for the web of life there.

    Some old-style socialists routinely say, it is capitalism and the capitalists that have to be blamed for all the environmental ills, not the “people”. That is too cheap. The poor peasants who are encroaching into the habitats of wild animals in Africa are not capitalists. The fishermen and peasants who are occupying the Sunderbans in Southern Bengal too are not capitalists. But the elephants of Africa and the tigers of the Sunderbans regularly attack the encroaching humans and destroy their crops and homes. They, in turn, are also getting decimated.

    Imagine an ideal old-style socialist society (not the defective Soviet model of the past). Would it do anything differently, if its human population and its “needs” and “aspirations” would be growing? And who are enjoying the fruits of continuous industrialization, only the capitalists? And not also the average people?

    (b) Population growth is also the basic cause of many small-scale wars and conflicts between small states, tribes, and ethnic groups. In the ultimate analysis, the genocidal massacre of Tutsis by Hutus that took place in Rwanda in 1994 was caused by shortage of fertile land and jobs for a growing population. Since, in the Sahel zone of Africa, the amount of fertile land is limited, regular battles (with massacres) between groups of herders and peasants take place there. The whole world is afraid that soon a war might break out between Ethiopia on the one side and Egypt and the Sudan on the other, the bone of contention will then be the waters of the river Nile. The populations of the three countries have been growing in the last ten years at the rate of 2.6, 2 and 3 percent respectively.

    In the 1970s – 1980s, in Maharashtra (India), the locals started an agitation for throwing the internal immigrants (South Indians) back from their state to South India because the latter were accused of occupying all the white-collar jobs. Also in the 1990s, we witnessed the caste conflict between upper caste Indian Youth and the youth of the other backward castes (OBCs).

    A similar agitation has been taking place in Assam (Eastern India) since long – not only against Bangladeshi illegal immigrants, but also against immigrants from West Bengal. In the latter case, the immigrants are mostly Hindus like the Assamese, their skin complexion is the same, i.e. brown, their mother tongues are very similar. But they are competitors for the scarce jobs, business opportunities and scarce agricultural land.

    The international media report only on illegal migration across national borders – on Central Americans and Mexicans get-crashing into the USA, Africans and Muslims from the Middle East get-crashing into Europe. The conflicts caused by migration within a country generally go unnoticed, but they are there in almost every country where the population is growing.

    Until about fifty years ago, it was not difficult for the surplus population of a country to emigrate to a relatively sparsely populated or industrially developed country. Immigrants were even welcome in many countries. But today, the boat is full. Immigrants are not welcome, they are being pushed back, walls are being built at borders, xenophobia is growing, fascism is spreading. If not for anything else, it is for the sake of peace within our own species that we should stop our own population growth.

    (c) I read about the population theory of Malthus at college at the age of 17. Our lecturer said, while rejecting the theory, that a human is not born only with a belly, but also with two hands. The implication was that a human also produces value (food etc.), so that population growth was no problem. We however know that not all pairs of hands find jobs or sufficient fertile land to produce value. There is unemployment in all countries. Moreover, not all young people are satisfied with finding some job for some food and clothing only, they want to have good jobs for a good life. But good jobs are scarce in their own native land. So they get-crash into Europe and North America.

    In 2011, the educated youth made uprisings in one Arab country after another (the Arab Spring). They also succeeded in many countries. They overthrew Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gadhafi and Saleh. They had thought they would henceforth enjoy a good prosperous life in freedom and democracy. But today they acknowledge their failure. Today, in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq, they are again agitating, this time against more or less democratically elected governments they have themselves brought to power. Apparently they knew nothing about limits to growth.

 (2) Counterarguments

 Wherever I spoke about overpopulation and the necessity of population control, some listeners came up with some standard counterarguments:

    (a) The growth rate of world population is falling and by 2050 or 2100 or so it will stabilize at ten to eleven billion. So don’t worry! That is true, and the prognosis for 2050 may also come true. But is that any consolation? Today’s ca. 8 billion humans are irretrievably consuming so many nonrenewable resources that even with zero growth of both, that will leave nothing over for the children who are being born today – i.e. nothing but an “uninhabitable Earth”* and a moonlike landscape full of huge mining craters.

    (b) Often it is argued that enough food is being produced in the world, it only needs to be distributed fairly. True, if you take the whole annual world food production and divide it by 8 billion, then you get enough food per capita. But how much could be produced if the farmers desist from using chemical fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides? Don’t ecologists want to ban the use of such chemicals?

    And is it not utterly absurd, utterly starry-eyed to imagine that the farmers of food-surplus countries – USA, Canada, Argentina, Australia etc. – would invest their money and labor to produce a surplus only to gift it away to the hungry poor of the world? They would gladly sell their surplus to whoever pays for it But how can the hungry of today get the money for that? Or they would sell their surplus grain to meat producers of rich countries.

    The World Food Program (WFP) buys a lot of the surplus for feeding the hungry of the world, the money for which comes from the rich states. So, in an indirect way, the surplus food does get distributed. But does anybody feel comfortable with this undignified beggar-like status of a part of humanity?

    Moreover, humans do not want to live by bread alone. It is never enough to have just sufficient food. Every citizen of even poor countries needs also a roof above his head, some decent clothing, basic medical care, basic security against crime, schooling for his children, and an opportunity for earning his and his family’s livelihood (i.e. a job). A functioning state should be able to provide these. Those that cannot are rightly called failed states. Overpopulation and high population growth rates are leading today to a growth of the number of failed states.

    (c) Inevitably, some (e.g. Britt in RED list) come up with the argument that citizens of the rich North consume 80 percent of the world’s resources, while constituting only 20 percent of the world’s population. Ergo, it is they who are to be blamed for all the ills of the planet, not the overpopulated countries of the poor South. Ergo, it is they who must do something for overcoming the planetary crises, and not speak about overpopulation in the Gobal South.

    The statistic is, generally speaking, correct. But what is the use of baying at the moon? Old-style Imperialism is history. And what has already happened in history cannot be unhappened. We in the South must ourselves save our own respective countries from ruin. It is not the task of the North. And it is not in their interest that the number of low-wage laborers in the Global South goes down.

    (d) Recently, some people are cursing population control and birth control policies. They argue with the fact of ageing populations in some rich countries and lack of sufficient number of young people for the labor force. They point at China’s problems. “India on the other hand is lauded for its enormous young population which favors economic prosperity” (Mari Marcel). In India, some people, e.g. former PM Manmohan Singh, have even been talking of “our demographic dividend”.

    This is corporate speak, the contemptuous way the capitalists and the managerial class speak about human beings. They may think: “après moi, le déluge “(after us the deluge). But we should not make it our own thought, despite all good reasons for pessimism. This problem, no doubt, is there and it must also be solved. But not by encouraging young couples to produce many children and thus ruining the environment further.

 (3) Sustainable Population

 Ashish requests me to tell “what I think is a human population that can be sustainable, and under what conditions.” The answer to this question is, broadly speaking, easy to give. Since, in principle, an economy based mainly on nonrenewable resources is not sustainable, an economy that is to be sustainable must, in principle, be mainly based on renewable resources. That can be easily imagined. The pre-industrial economy of Europe (indeed, of all countries) was sustainable, because it was mainly based on renewable resources: biomass, human and animal muscle power, wind, sunshine and the power of flowing water as sources of energy, and wood and some easily recyclable metals – like bronze, iron and aluminum – as solid material. The optimum population of that period was/is therefore the human population that can be sustainable. Note that I am saying “optimum”, the actual population of that period was more than optimal. That is why they had to migrate and conquer new territories and decimate local populations. That was one reason why so many wars were fought between kingdoms and empires. I guess, the actual world population of that period was about I billion (There are some estimates in the Wikipedia with curves of world population growth through the centuries)

 (4) What we can do. Realism

 It is easy for theorists to say, in principle it is so or basically it should be so. Activists must however try to achieve their solutions in practical terms.

    Nothing can be achieved overnight, activists must therefore work with a transition period plan and the goals set must be realistic. There is no use writing down dreams as goals. Even so, the ultimate goal(s) can/should be idealistically formulated, whatever be one’s ideal, so that they can serve as the compass for a long journey. Unity of purpose is necessary in any group, but in order to achieve that unity, agreement on analysis of the given situation must also be achieved.

    For today, I am closing this article in this vein. If readers demand it, I can write more on the subject answering their questions.

 References:

 My basic theoretical positions can be found in my book:

Saral Sarkar: Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? A critical Analysis of Humanity’s Fundamental Choices (Zed Books, London. 1999, Orient Longmans, New Delhi, Hyderabad, 2001)

 David Wallace Wells : The Uninhabitable Earth

 Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas: Technology Assessment. The Case of the Direct Use of Solar Energyhttp://www.peakoilindia.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Georgescu-Roegen-The-Case-of-the-Direct-Use-of-Solar-Energy.pdf

Essays and articles on renewable energies 

Saving the Planet, American Style -- A Critical Review, and Some Thoughts and Ideas
https://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2016/10/saving-planet-american-style-critical_7.html

Once More on the Viability of Renewable Energies
https://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2016/06/once-more-on-viability-of-renewable_11.html

Root Causes of the Cleavages in the Ecological Left
https://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2015/09/root-causes-of-cleavages-in-ecological.html

Krugman's Illusion: We Becoming Richer, But Not Damaging The Environment
https://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2014/04/krugmans-illusion-we-becoming-richer.html

Thunberg's Problem. A Problem Without A Solution?
https://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2019/03/thunbergs-problem-problem-without.html

The Global Crisis and Role of So-Called Renewable Energies in Solving It
https://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2017/07/the-global-crisis-and-role-of-so-called.html

There is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch, For Humans. -- Response to Some  Comments on My Essay in Insurge-Intelligence
https://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2017/08/there-is-no-such-thing-as-free-lunch.html

 Essays and article on the overpopulation and unwelcome migrants Problem

Polemics is Useless
A Proposal For An Eco-socialist Synthesis In The Overpopulation Dispute

http://eco-socialist.blogspot.de/2012/08/polemics-is-useless-proposal-for-eco.html

 

Two Different Demographic Crises -- Some Eco-Socialist Reflections

http://eco-socialist.blogspot.de/2013/11/two-different-demographic-crises-some.html


India's Unwelcome Immigrants Problem -- Identity Politics Beats Class Politics

https://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2018/11/indias-unwelcome-immigrants-problem.html


The Refugee-Migrant Crisis of the EU -- Its Deeper Causes and Messages

http://eco-socialist.blogspot.de/2015/11/the-refugee-migrant-crisis-of-eu-its.html

The Tragedy of Lampedusa -- What to do?

http://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-tragedy-of-lampedusa-what-to-do.html

For Saving the Earth We Need to Tell the Whole Truth -- an eco-socialist's response to Richard Smith

http://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2017/12/for-saving-earth-we-need-to-tell-whole.html

 The Two Drivers of Ecological Collapse and the Two Tasks

http://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2018/01/the-two-drivers-of-ecological-collapse.html

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Is Collapse of Our Civilization Unavoidable?


The question put above should not surprise anybody who is informed about the state of the world today. In the past, other civilizations have collapsed or withered away. So our civilization too may not be able to avoid that fate. Currently, this possibility is being associated with global warming,1 But even earlier, the end of the current civilization was speculated on in association with the discovery of limits to growth. With this essay, I am adding my two cents to the discussion.
    While millions are worried, some, called the denialists, do not accept that global warming is a man-made problem. I need not here go into their arguments, I simply accept the well-known view of the vast majority of climatologists that excessive emission of green-house gases by humans is the explanation of this phenomenon. If so, it is the duty of us humans to repair the damages and see to it that GHG emissions remain below the limit. Many optimists believe, the problem can be solved.

The Political-Economic Difficulties in Solving the Problem

But I have strong doubts. Our prevailing political-economic system, that today seems to be unalterable, is the big obstacle to solving the problem. The optimists say, we only need to have the will to do the necessary things. But that is only theory. The million Dollar question is: will humanity be able to develop the strong will to take the difficult and complex measures necessary for stopping warming in the given narrow timeframe, i.e. by 2030? We must delve a little deeper in the matter, in order to judge whether that, in reality, would also be possible.
    Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis,2 postulated in 1989 before the fall of the Berlin wall, was largely (though not fully) borne out by the developments that took place in the years immediately thereafter – viz. the systemic transformation that took place in the Soviet Union and the Eastern European communist states. If it proves to be an enduring truth, then we have to reckon with a long life for the political-economic system of liberal democracy plus free-market capitalism and Western lifestyle. Apparently, at present at least, this system has no rival as an ideal.
    This system has two parts: (1) It requires that, generally speaking, the incumbent rulers, an elected president or prime minister, and her party, which has a majority in the parliament, seek endorsement of the majority of the voters for another period of 4 or 5 years in office. Now human nature being what it is, politicians crave for (more) power (Fukuyama says: recognition) and power holders try to remain in power. (2) The majority of the voters, the ordinary people, on their part, crave for more prosperity, more comfort, and more enjoyment in life through consumption of more and more goods and services.
    The former can attain their objective by serving or promising to serve the immediate material interests of the majority of the voters – for instance, by promising to create more and better jobs, lower taxes, raise wages and welfare benefits, increase security etc. All that requires high rates of economic growth, for which borrowing money is made easier and cheaper for both private and public sectors. As a result, generally speaking, all economies of the world are today sitting on mountains of debt.
    These two fundamental aspects of human nature have been two of the main drivers of human history. They have given rise to capitalism and industrialism, from which we today cannot escape. They contributed strongly to continuous material and technological “progress”, but also caused much misery and destruction (at least ever since we left the putative state of primitive communism behind). Of course, throughout history, there have been exceptional humans who rejected these motives and followed lofty ones for their actions (Gandhi, Saint Francis of Assisi, Buddha e.g.). But they have been few and far between. These cravings have driven kings and emperors, but also other kinds of rulers, to conquer or dominate over more and more territories and peoples, which was their way of satisfying their own lust for power and the hunger of their own subjects for (more) prosperity. Neither the citizens’ democracies of the ancient Greek city states, nor the ancient Roman republic of the assembly of aristocrats (the Senate) has been much of an exception. In more recent times, neither the revolutionary democratic French republic founded with lofty ideals in 1779 nor the United States of America founded after a liberation struggle in 1776, with its ideal democratic constitution, could resist the temptation of conquering other countries and dominating over other peoples.
    Throughout history, these two drivers got ever more force from the continuous growth in human population, which caused a continuous growth in the volume of demand for goods and services that satisfy the consumption desires of people. A growing human population also enabled entrepreneurs to hire (or buy on the slave market) more and more cheap laborers (slaves) and rulers to recruit (or conscript) ever more soldiers for their wars.
    In our present context, the most problematic aspect of this system is that it has developed a growth dynamic that cannot be stopped, let alone reversed, anymore for any length of time without risking a serious political and economic crisis. But without reversing it, we cannot also stop our march along the slippery slope to an ecological collapse. The situation has been summarized in the well-known equation:

                                                       I = P x A x T

(Where I stands for total ecological Impact, of which climate change is only a major part, P for population, A for affluence, and T for technology). That means the more the population grows, the more affluence we achieve, and the more we use sophisticated technologies, the more we impact adversely on our environment.

The Gloomy Perspective

Against this background, is there any reason to be optimistic? The phylogenetic (i.e. innate) behavior patterns of us humans were formed (as those of all animals) by the processes of our biological evolution, the most important of which have been struggle for survival and survival of the fittest. There is not much room there for altruism. Yet, we are now being called upon to (decide to) do things that totally go against the grain of this genetic inheritance: As individuals, we should not act only in our own individual interest, not even only in the interest of our identity group (nation, tribe, ethnic group), but also and primarily in the interest of the whole humanity, and the rest of nature (other animal and plant species) to boot. And we should not even act only in the interest of the currently living generations of humanity, but also in the interest of the future generations thereof. Our politicians should not strive for power, but only desire to serve the people and the future generations. Our economic policies should no longer be oriented toward continuous economic growth, but, on the contrary, toward a contracting (degrowing) economy. We should no longer seek joie de vivre in more consumption of luxury goods and services, but in sacrificing standard of living we are used to. We should e.g. drastically reduce air travel and use, instead of cars, bicycles and boats for travel. In sum, we should drastically reduce use of scarce resources, especially of fossil fuels, the very basis of affluence in our current civilization. Is all that humanly possible at all? Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, a famous German author on the subject, wrote in 1989: “To tell Europeans, Americans, and Japanese that they should wear sackcloth and ashes and forgo prosperity, is a strategy condemned to failure.”2a
    If at all possible, it will, in any circumstance, be extremely difficult. Firstly, climate change is a global phenomenon. Though mainly caused by the industrial societies, in the recent decades, all countries have been contributing to it, more or less.  It is a typical “tragedy of the commons” situation,3 the commons being here the global atmosphere. We know how difficult it was to achieve the Paris Accord on climate change (2015). India, e.g., resisted accepting any cut in its CO2 emission and had to be pressured by other powers to do so.
    Secondly, no underdeveloped country is prepared to give up its ambition of catching up with the USA with regard to affluence. The accord finally signed was therefore very weak, some even called it a fraud.4 Even this weak accord has in the meantime been repudiated by the USA. Actually, global CO2 emission is still rising.
    The essential problem is that one cannot kill the goose that is laying the golden eggs. Fossil fuels are the very basic resource (the goose), the foundation on which the present-day industrial civilization has been built and continues to run. If you drastically reduce their use, your economy will most certainly take a nosedive. That has been well understood all over the world by both the majority of the voters and their leaders. The strong desire to continue to get the golden eggs remains unabated. That is why nothing serious is being done, can be done, to mitigate global warming.
    There is of course a minority of voters in almost every industrial country, the naïve environmentalists, who believe it is possible to run a highly industrialized economy/society without using any fossil fuels, and without substantially sacrificing prosperity. They are demanding since long that their governments embark on a quick 100% transition from fossil fuels to so-called renewable energies. But governments of the world are not doing anything more than giving some token support to the “renewable” power industry. Fact is, in the main, they are continuing to rely for the bulk of the energy needs of their country on the conventional sources, viz. fossil fuels, nuclear power, and hydroelectricity.
    Elsewhere,5 I have explained in detail why this dream of the naïve environmentalists appears to me, at least till now, to be unrealizable. In short, renewable energies are feasible but, energetically and economically, not viable – because the net energy that we can get from them (their EROEI) at the best sites is very low and at less than optimum sites often negative.

Summing up

Already since the mid1970s, it is clear to discerning people that there are limits to economic growth. Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen called the one-off availability of stocks of non-renewable energy sources and other minerals in low-entropy state “the limited dowry of mankind’s existence on earth”. He concluded in 1971:

“Even with a constant population and a constant flow per capita of mined resources, mankind's dowry will ultimately be exhausted if the career of the human species is not brought to an end earlier by other factors.”6 

But politicians and experts, like ostriches, refused to heed their warnings, even pushed back with caviling. Frustrated, Georgescu-Roegen wrote:

"Will mankind listen to any program that implies a constriction of its addiction to exosomatic comfort? Perhaps the destiny of man is to have a short, but fiery, exciting and extravagant life rather than a long, uneventful and vegetative existence. Let other species – the amoebas, for example, – which have no spiritual ambitions, inherit an earth still bathed in plenty of sunshine."7
   
    This pessimistic but realistic perspective of the 1970s was mainly based on the realization of the limitedness and exhaustibility of non-renewable resources, especially of energy resources. However, for the time being, the danger of sky-rocketing crude oil prices as a result of “peak oil” has been averted through the development of “fracking” technology that opened up shale oil deposits for exploitation. But even that would not save this civilization from the growing resource problems. Today, however, the greatest danger is coming from global warming.
    We can describe the situation today as a “pincer-grip crisis”. On the one hand, the resource scarcity is increasingly making itself felt while the world population is continuously growing. On the other hand, if and to the extent that we succeed in solving the resource scarcity problem and thus make continuous economic and population growth possible, we would be heating up the atmosphere and pollute the environment. There is no solution to this crisis within the current model of civilization.

Is there Any Hope? Can Something Still Be Done?

In the light of the analysis presented above, it seems that end of history in Fukuyama’s optimistic sense – worldwide proliferation of a quasi-steady-state liberal-democratic capitalism – will not materialize. What we are observing today is rather the impending end of history in the sense of collapse of our present civilization followed by centuries of chaos, wars, and destruction. But that does not mean that humans as a species would soon become extinct, as the movement Extinction Rebellion seems to suggest. Our present one is not the only possible civilization. No, humans are a tough and intelligent species. In its history, this species has survived some earlier climate changes. And, as for civilization, there have been several ever since humans transitioned from a nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life to a sedentary agricultural one. So, in the future too, after the collapse of the present one, a different civilization could be possible, which, hopefully, could be made more peaceful, more ecological and more social.
    Denialists, but also many who accept the view that climate change is man-made, see only one way of positively reacting to the unavoidable change, viz. progressive adaptation to the new situation: e.g. by withdrawing from the coastal plains and newly desertifying areas and resettling in still habitable areas. That would not be easy, also because resistance to foreigners/outsiders encroaching on one’s own territory is a strong element of human nature. Currently, we are witnessing this in the USA and Europe, but also in Assam (a province in India).
    Human nature would most certainly be a big obstacle to creating a new civilization. But there may still be some hope. Iräneus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, the great German human-ethologist wrote:

“We are not fully predetermined by our instincts. We are capable of controlling our nature through culture. … What is decisive is that we are the first creatures that can set goals for themselves, and thus give our life a meaning. By doing this, we, of course, do not free ourselves from [our] nature, but we actively enter into new situations, in which new conditions of [evolutionary-biological] selection act upon us.” 8

But Frans de Waal, famous primatologist and human-ethologist, claims that we do not have to wait for new conditions of selection to arise that would affect our behavior pattern and make it appropriate for a better and just society. Counter to the assumption that animals (so also humans)9 are inherently selfish, he has on several occasions observed in several animals of different species facets of altruism, viz. cooperativeness, empathy, helpfulness etc. He believes, contrary to the narrow understanding of Darwin’s theory of evolution, also these traits of behavior are innate in many mammalian species including humans, part of their phylogenetic inheritance. They have always been among the conditions of survival of these species. We can then also conclude that the phylogenetic foundations for an ecological and better, i.e. more humane, civilization already exist. We only have to set these goals for ourselves.
    For reasons described above, just setting these goals may be, in practical-political terms, very difficult. But, at least on paper, a part of them has already been set, long ago – e.g. in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the UN (1948) and in various constitutions of individual states.
    This part has also been realized to some extent in some countries, as evidenced e.g. by the compassionate or tolerating reception of political and war refugees as well as illegal migrants in some European countries such as Germany, Sweden etc. Such receptions have also been observed in poorer countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Kenya, Tanzania etc.
    But these examples also reveal the limit to such compassionate tolerance. As soon as the number of refugees and migrants swelled to a million and above, the host native peoples of the EU started fearing they “might lose their homeland”. Xenophobic views and slogans like “Germany for Germans, foreigners get out” started being expressed, and fascistic and right-extremist groups got new impetus. There is no doubt, there does exist a social-critical limit to tolerance toward foreigners.
    What can we conclude from all these facts for today’s honest policy-makers and eco-political activists? Of course, we must not give up our ultimate cause of building an ecological and social-human society, But, as Paul Ehrlich once wrote addressing leftist activists, ”whatever be your cause, it is a lost cause unless we control population [growth].” I fully agree. To make people control their greed and consumption desires is very difficult. It is much easier to make them accept population control.

References

1. For the most detailed account, see:
Wallace-Wells, David:
The Uninhabitable Earth
http://www.ecologise.in/2017/07/15/viral-essay-uninhabitable-earth/

2. Fukuyama, Francis (1992) End of History and the Last Man. New Delhi etc.: Penguin.

2a. Weizsäcker, Ernst Ulrich von (1989: 14) Erdpolitik. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

3. Hardin, Garrett (1968) “The Tragedy of the Commons”
http://science.sciencemag.org/content/162/3859/1243

4. See my article “An Historic Event or a Fraud? – Critical Thoughts on the Paris Climate Accord”.
https://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/search?q=Paris+Climate

5. See my article “The Global Crisis and Role of So-called Renewable Energies in Solving It,”
https://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/search?q=Global+Crisis
See also chapter 4 of my book:

Sarkar, Saral (1999) Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? London: Zed Books.

6. Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas (1971/1981: P. 296) The Entropy Law and the Economic Process. Cambridge (USA), London: Harvard University Press.

7. Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas (1972/1976: P.35.) Energy and Economic Myths. New York: Pergamon Press.

8. Eibl-Eibesfeld, Irenäus (1990: P. 81) "Glaube als Offenbarungswissen und Zuversicht", in Deschner (note 8a)

8a. Deschner, Karlheinz (ed.) (1990) Woran ich glaube, Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn.

9. de Waal, Frans (1996) Good Natured. The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
See also his book

de Waal, Frans (2010) The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society. New York: Three Rivers Press.