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Humans have accomplished some remarkable things throughout our history. Today, however, despite all we’ve accomplished, it feels like we’re backsliding while the world burns. We face some enormous challenges, but there’s no evidence of progress aside from some political and corporate greenwashing and virtue-signaling campaigns to keep us all consuming (aka “business as usual”).
If the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy were a real thing, I think these are some of the accomplishments it might list for our species:
- Egyptian pyramids – a remarkable feat of engineering that still leaves us perplexed as to how such things could be constructed using primitive technologies
- Empire State Building – arguably NYC’s most beautiful building, constructed in a mere 410 days–under budget mind you–and 12 days ahead of schedule
- internal combustion engine – the engine that fueled the great economic expansion of the 20th and 21st century
- public transit – mass transit systems allow millions of people to move at incredibly low costs
- penicillin – one of the first antibiotics to be effective against a wide range of infections
- insulin – a hormone that would allow millions of diabetics to live normal lives
- Apollo program – we put people on the moon, just to say we could
- The Starry Night – a work of art that defies words from troubled man with incredible talent
- Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – once again, a tough one to put into words
- The Internet – a global network that allows anyone to communicate with anyone anywhere, which has profound effects we still don’t understand
- Wikipedia – arguably the greatest single source of human knowledge, available to anyone anywhere at no cost
Business as Usual #
There is no technological reason we can’t stave off the inevitable mass suffering and continued extinction of much of life on Earth, which we humans will also be unable to avoid. We’re making a choice, however, to prioritize business as usual because it’s the most convenient thing to do.
The power structures as they currently are have slowly designed and reinforced themselves to continue business…as usual, and thus they cannot change unless there’s an extreme event or cataclysmic restructuring. Whether we do this voluntarily, or it happens the hard way, it will happen. On our current trajectory, we risk turning this planet into a hothouse, and it’s not unfathomable to believe we could even have a runaway greenhouse situation which is precisely what happened to the planet Venus.
How Did We Get Here? #
We’ve known for quite some time that we’re on an unsustainable path, but we made the decision at the highest levels to continue on the same path for one reason, and one reason only: we must make the numbers go up. Which numbers, you ask? The GDP numbers, of course. And why must those numbers go up? Well, we need those numbers to go up so the stock market numbers go up. And why must the stock market numbers go up? Well, it’s simple: some people have all their money in the stock market, and they want it to go up. Coincidentally, the people with the greatest influence in politics happen to also be the people with the most money in the stock market.
Unfortunately, the only action we can take to make us not destroy our planet is also bad for the stock market. That action, of course, would be to keep the carbon in the ground. No amount of solar panels, windmills, electric cars, or other “green” capitalism can make all the carbon go back into the ground while we continue to pull it out as fast as we can and pump it into the atmosphere.
Imagining a Future #
This brings me to the title of the post: why are we even talking about this? How did we get here? Why didn’t we do something about this problem when Al Gore made that movie?
The answer to those questions, I believe, is quite simple: a lack of imagination. Or perhaps, an unwillingness to exercise one’s imagination.
I think, theoretically, if we had started down the path of decarbonizing 20 years ago, then we might have a chance of achieving the opposite of extinction through some sort of “net-zero” policy, provided we had achieved net-zero emissions by now. That window of opportunity has since passed, as currently the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are so far above pre-industrial levels of around ~280ppm (which was the Goldilocks era of human history, arguably the most perfect climate for our species) that there’s likely no way we can slow the effects of climate change to avoid the inevitable consequences of:
- mass crop failures
- extreme weather
- ocean acidification
- rising sea levels
- tipping points
- the general breakdown of the ecological systems that allow us to exist on this planet by providing food, clean water, and oxygen for us
It would seem the only thing we are capable of imagining at the highest levels of office is how to make sure the stock market goes up. For some reason, there is no will or interest in imagining how useful all those stock market points will be when most or all of the human population is dead from either starvation, the inevitable climate wars, or some other second or third-order effect we haven’t even considered yet. For example, what will happen when a nation with access to nuclear weapons gets into a tricky spot such as running out of water in the desert? Presumably, there are plenty of smart people (e.g., at the Pentagon) who have thought about this, and I would guess they plan to simply be the guys who launch their nukes before the other guys do.