Recommendation: Yes, but not because you’ll enjoy it

Where to read: Secure in your brand new underground bunker

Read with: Xanax probably

In brief: In the immortal words of Mary Poppins, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. In this case, the sugar is something vaguely resembling optimism (read, false hope) and the medicine is the inescapable conclusion that we are all, collectively, utterly fucked.

I know I’ve taken the piss out of survivalists before (and will continue to do so because the level of delusion is high) but one can’t help but think they might have a point about the concrete bunkers and stored food, if not the reasons for storing it (I suspect if you put climate denial and doomsday prepper on the Venn diagram the overlap would be significant).

The two key terms here are “threat multiplier” and “tipping point”. Climate change makes everything worse. Add climate change into the mix and all the fault lines and flash points already extant become more dangerous. And the changes to the climate have a life of their own, and a momentum we are powerless to stop. For instance, the damage we have done to the Arctic and Antarctic ice-shelves is so serious that we couldn’t avoid sea level rises even if we never put another ounce of carbon into the atmosphere – we have reached and passed a tipping point on that one. Many species have been driven to the point where there are too few to allow them to survive in the wild – another tipping point. The Great Barrier Reef, like other coral reefs, is now suffering bleaching events faster than it can recover – tipping point. Even if we can avoid the ultimate tipping point (though that is simplistic), it is far too late to save the world as we know it.

In essence, this is basically a list of ways in which global society as we understand it is untenable, as is the survival of large numbers of the species. To summarise:

  1. People: There are far too many people on the planet and it is getting worse rapidly, which causes a massive increase in…
  2. Consumption: Too many of these too many people have too much stuff, and as more people aspire to and achieve a higher standard of living, the amount of stuff people want and expect will go up. This is what Thomas Friedman in Hot, Flat and Crowded calls the “too many Americans” problem. It’s so embedded that the idea of a no-growth or negative-growth economy is regarded as more dangerous than environmental collapse. And even if we stop buying iPhones every two years, we still need…
  3. Food: Population growth means additional demand for food, climate change means increasingly unpredictable weather patterns and drastically reduced crop yields. Setting aside transport problems, feeding the increasing population would require a “Green Revolution 2.0”, rapidly increasing food production in places where both the environmental and political situation are less than ideal and that is assuming we can deal with the lack of…
  4. Water: We are terrible at water management even when times are good. As times become less good, there is going to be less where we’re used to getting it (rivers and catchment areas) and more where we’re not used to it (rising sea levels and flash floods) and even if we can get it, it might be toxic sludge because…
  5. We pollute fucking everything: Human waste, mining waste, agricultural waste, plastic straws, glitter, polyester, needlessly inefficient American cars because “fuck libtards, that’s why”, tailing dams, CFCs, antibiotics flushed down the toilet, litter on Everest, pesticides, most of the Arctic Circle. Rachel Carson had a fucking point, as it turns out. And so did Gaiman and Pratchett when they changed one of the horsemen of the apocalypse from “Pestilence” to “Pollution”, except not really because…
  6. Infectious diseases ain’t gunna be “beaten”, Bill Gates: I know eradicating malaria sounds like a good idea, except that we don’t have a vaccine for it, like we did for small pox, and previous attempts to stamp it out by killing the vector (Anopheles mosquitoes) caused massive DDT pollution and insecticide-resistant super-mosquitoes. We’re breeding antibiotic-resistant bacteria at a rate of knots, carrying pathogens all over the globe in planes, cargo holds and ballast and creating the perfect conditions for zoonotic diseases to spillover into human populations. Just in and of itself, that’s a litany of misery – HIV, Ebola, MERS, SARS, swine flu, bird flu, influenza generally, plague generally, Nipah, Dengue, Lassa, Marburg, sleeping sickness, Zika, chikungunya (“break-bone fever”) and COVID-19 for a start. The more people encroach on wilderness and jungle, the more they are going to be exposed to zoonotic diseases and the greater the chance those diseases will successfully make the jump to humans. To make matters worse, rising temperatures will increase the range of the aforementioned super-mosquitoes, turning “tropical” diseases into “everywhere” diseases. The chances of this causing significant fatalities are pretty high. And speaking of mass casualties…
  7. War, what is it good for, absolutely nothing (unless resources are scarce): What do you get when you combine lots of people, limited stuff, limited food, limited water and communicable disease – conflict, that is what you get. In fact, I can’t think of an example where those kinds of tensions haven’t caused disaster. For example, the price of bread is linked to civil unrest and revolution. In Australia and the United States, water allocations cause intense and intractable political conflict between upstream and downstream states – and this is intra-national conflict. Imagine what happens when China builds a dam on every single one of the rivers in its territory, or when the headwater of the Ganges is exhausted, or the Nile, or the Amazon is polluted beyond repair. Efforts to contain Ebola in Liberia (and the rest of West Africa) were hampered significantly by the natural fear of outsiders who might carry disease, amplified by anti-Western conspiracy theories which resulted in the murder of many healthcare workers, and by the rioting that followed government attempts to quaratine the slums in Freetown. Anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States has historically been linked to fears of the diseases they were said to carry, from yellow fever and TB to HIV – just imagine what Trump Jr would do with climate refugees from South America and the swine flu. And as if this litany of man-made horrors were not enough…
  8. The planet is on actual fire: as climate change gets worse, natural disasters will become more common and more severe, from fires to floods to cyclones. We are already seeing this globally, not to mention in our own backyard right here in the worst polluter per capita in the world.

Barnosky and Hadly conclude on a positive note but I cannot – they were writting before Trump and the trashing of the international order, when it seemed like the Paris Agreement might offer some cause for optimism. In my own myopic little place, it seems like denialism and inaction are as strong as ever – Australia is fervently beavering away to build the largest coalmine in the world, even as the country burns.

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