We have entered a critical era for the future of humanity on this planet, and the stakes are indeed as high as whether there will be anything left for those who come next. In the period of expansive consumer growth following World War II, and then again with another quantum leap in the age of globalization and digitization, humankind has been collectively taxing the planet’s carrying capacity and altering basic processes that have sustained our existence for eons. At this juncture, we cannot simply go back to a more pristine time (real or imagined), and the question of where we go from here is an open and urgent one.
Unfortunately, elite interests of both the national and multinational varieties are already in the process of making this all-important decision for us. Rather than reconsidering the profligate lifestyles and extractive mindsets that have pushed us to the brink, the profit-seeking powers that be are doubling down on their efforts to procure every last usable penny’s worth from the planet in short order. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that we are not going to drill, pump, mine, or frack our way out of this mess — and in reality, such methods are only going to exacerbate the problem.
We have a crisis of both hardware and software converging upon us. On the hardware side, there are 7 billion people to feed while basic resources such as arable land, energy inputs, and freshwater supplies are imperiled by waste, overuse, and maldistribution. Too many people consume disproportionately while others suffer needlessly, creating an ongoing quest by the latter to join the ranks of the former (understandably so), yielding a sharp spike in demand as supplies are dwindling.
We needn’t be neo-Malthusians to recognize the gravity of the situation. You may remember Malthus: he predicted about two centuries ago that at some point human population would exceed food supplies. Thus far, we have generally avoided the worst of his predictions through innovations and new technologies, but the debt is coming due sooner rather than later. The basic equation of how much there is to go around is hard to avoid, and the inflationary bubble we’ve been living in during the age of abundant energy inputs (primarily through fossil fuels) is bound to burst.
In order to try and stave off this bursting bubble, extractive industries have been scouring the earth for every last drop of oil and whiff of gas to be found, from the Arctic (with vast reserves ironically being unearthed by global warming) to the Falkland Islands (do we really need another war, especially an ’80s retread?). Michael Klare has termed this “the race for what’s left” — and increasingly it appears to be a race with no winners and a lost planet in the process. While it may indeed yield a short-term glut of available resources — no doubt utilized to prop up even further levels of centralized control, with a bit of trickle-down consumerism thrown in for good measure — such temporary expansion is going to come at the longer-term expense of the stability of the biosphere and its capacity to continue supporting human life.
Still, the so-called Cornucopians will be gloating over the glut. These economic optimists are the yang to the neo-Malthusians’ yin, emphasizing humanity’s inherent inventiveness, the promise of technological innovation, and the capacity of markets to adapt and self-regulate. This is the neoliberal alternative to the neo-conservatism of the scarcity crowd, emphasizing abundance and a “growth is good” perspective that fits squarely within the narrative of corporate globalization and its penchant for development-oriented schemes as a pathway to security and sustainability. It all sounds quite enticing, aside from the inconvenient realization that its premises are false and its promises illusory, as each techno-fix yields new problems and requires even deeper incursions to manage the ones created by the last wave of hubristic profiteering.
The cases in point are rapidly mounting. Shall we geoengineer the atmosphere to try and reverse climate change? Drag and drop near-earth asteroids into stable orbits so that they can be siphoned and mined? Mitigate the human costs of war by deploying robotic soldiers? Solve hunger by mass-producing nutritionally dubious non-foods for widespread consumption? Squeeze oil from sand and dangerously transport it across continents? The gap between science fiction and hard facts is closing, as we come to grips with realizing that our problems are more about quality than quantity and about how the resources are distributed. A global system in which half the world consumes and the other half is consumed is perverse, unjust, immoral, and ultimately unsustainable.
This is the paradox of “national security” and its increasing equation with energy security as a function of resource control. Indeed, the very notion of national security is misplaced in an interconnected world, and the version of it being plied by powerful interests merely leads to deeper forms of environmental insecurity for the system as a whole. The quest for control generates greater destabilization, and is thus self-defeating. It is an age of ironies, to be sure, and it is becoming clearer by the minute that we cannot continue to trade short-term gains for overall stability and sustainability if the human experiment is to continue. At the end of the day, we come to recognize that in an interlinked planetary system, no one is secure unless everyone is secure.
We simply have been pursuing the wrong ends all along; profit and power will be meaningless if the habitability of the biosphere is decimated. A rising tide swamps all coasts eventually, and there won’t be any higher ground sufficient to surmount ocean acidification, ozone depletion, loss of arable lands, diminution of biodiversity, and endemic pollution (not to mention deficits of nitrogen and phosphorous). While elites dally with an economic sequester, what we really need is carbon sequestration. The surest way to accomplish this would be to leave it in the ground, in light of credible estimates indicating that if we burn more than a quarter of the fossil fuels extant it will be “game over” for the climate and its irreversible thresholds.
I know it sounds counterintuitive to argue for humans NOT to exploit the earth. We seem to have a predilection toward “die hard” scenarios in which we heroically save the day against crises of our own creation — which today is a veritable slippery slope composed of melting ice caps and oil-slicked waterways. The myth of human superiority is palpable, even as our time here pales in relation to that of the fossils in our fuel. Will we someday be those fossils for someone else’s fuel? Only time will tell, but it would be foolhardy to continue courting extinction by violating the first rule of getting out of a hole: stop digging. We are not going to drill our way to salvation; “the pump don’t work” because we are pointlessly vandalizing the planet that sustains us.
A growing contingent of humankind is clamoring for another way of being in the world. It starts with dispelling the fiction, once and for all, that we can continue despoiling the environment without destroying ourselves in the process.