From Ran Prieur
Esquire has a new article about the emotions of climate scientists, and it mentions scenarios all the way from human extinction to “We can solve this problem in a way that doesn’t disrupt our lifestyle.”
I want to divide this topic into three levels: science, society, and psychology. Science can tell us about rising temperatures and melting glaciers and acidifying oceans. A good book on this subject is Under A Green Sky by Peter Ward. This is the worst scenario you can get to with good science, and still Ward admits that it won’t be as extreme as the Permian-Triassic extinction, because too much carbon has been locked up in limestone. And even the P-T extinction only killed 70% of land vertebrate species. It’s not a lottery — the delicate specialist species go first, and humans are among the toughest and most adaptable.
So given severe climate change and human survival, how will we be living? This is an impossible question, because a few people at comfortable desks in 2015 cannot imagine the options and the creativity of millions of people with their backs to the wall in 2025. On the subreddit a reader mentioned the 1972 Limits To Growth model. It’s been pretty accurate so far, and I think it has proven that we can’t go on living exactly the way we’ve been living. But other ways of living are outside the scope of the model. I can’t find the link, but someone took Limits To Growth and applied it to the year 1400, and it also predicted near-term collapse.
There are two ways of thinking about future social adaptations — or two extremes on a spectrum. At one extreme, any society that we haven’t seen cannot exist, and our options are limited to what we have already tried. So if late 20th century industrial civilization can’t keep going, then we have to go back to the 19th century, or the 13th, or the negative 100th. At the other extreme, what we have already tried is nothing, and there are unlimited options that we have not even imagined. Of course we’re still constrained by physics, which rules out sustained exponential growth.
In the Esquire article, one scientist thinks that “consumption and growth have become so central to our sense of personal identity, and the fear of economic loss creates such numbing anxiety, we literally cannot imagine making the necessary changes.” He’s talking about the politically impossible changes that would prevent eco-catastrophe, but this is also true of the involuntary changes that will allow human systems to keep going through eco-catastrophe.
Last September there was a fascinating article about the mysteriously high Russian death rate. It seems that older Russians were unable to adapt mentally to the fall of the Soviet system, and they have lost the will to live and are dying more easily from all kinds of things. But in the coming decades the whole world could see more severe social changes — people losing their money, their status, their jobs, their home cities, their ancestral cultures, their belief in progress — without getting anywhere near a Mad Max collapse. So I think the challenges of this century will be more psychological than physical, and growing your own food is less valuable than growing your own meaning.