Renewable Matter # 21 / May-June

Choosing Sides in the Civilisation-Planet Standoff

by Richard Heinberg

To halt climate change, respond to the crisis of biodiversity, and minimise the depletion of natural resources, we must tackle the global extract-deplete-and-pollute economy. However, since we all depend on that economy for sustenance, we should do this in a way that’s fair and just for everyone.

Financial and policy elites don’t want to hear any of this. Economic growth is the central article of faith in our modern world. Whatever the problem, growth is the solution; every politician promises more growth, not less. The economy is a vehicle with no reverse gear, and we regard the planet as merely a means to our glorious or ignominious end. 

An irresistible force (our demand for endless growth) has met an immovable object (a planet with limited resources and capacity to absorb waste). This civilisation-versus-planet contest appears to be a standoff. Meanwhile archaeologists have learned than civilisations are unstable, temporary affairs. So, in our contest, we can be fairly sure that it’s the planet that will ultimately prevail – though likely in a condition so weakened and destabilised that it can no longer support civilisation. Can we resolve this standoff before humanity locks itself in an irreversible trajectory?

Perhaps technology could play a role. We could switch to energy technologies like solar panels and wind turbines that don’t vent carbon into the atmosphere. But, if human society continues to grow, and if we continue to use energy for further resource extraction that destroys natural ecosystems, then even solar and wind power generators will at best only postpone civilisation’s demise.

If we want to preserve civilisation over the long run, our only real hope is to transform it. We must begin to think of the human economy as a dependent subset of the global ecosystem. We must aim for a desirable steady state rather than perpetual growth. Furthermore, our economy must be circular so that it doesn’t deplete or degrade natural resources and generates no toxic waste. We must restore ecosystems – build soils, expand forests, remove pollution from the oceans, and rein in fishing. As we do these things, we can minimise disruptive impacts in the social sphere by promoting cooperative worker ownership of businesses, the sharing economy, and a universal basic income.

However, in order for these kinds of shifts to prevail, a deeper change of heart and mind will be required. Instead of seeing the natural world as a pile of resources to be plundered, we must begin to see it (as our indigenous ancestors once did) as the source of our being and the guide for our actions. 

In every age a worldview arises that helps people make sense of their lives and their surroundings. During the brief fossil-fuelled industrial era, humanity adopted a worldview centred on worship of technology and the goal of economic growth. But today the seeds of a new and different worldview are germinating, invisible to most.

The ecological worldview is the inevitable human response to climate change, and it represents a moral and ethical revolution. The ecological mind looks for systemic links between phenomena. It has planetary scope but is locally rooted and adapted. As it branches out and unfurls its leaves, the nature-centred way of thinking throws into doubt a host of culturally reinforced assumptions. 

Quite simply, in the civilisation-planet contest, more and more of us are switching sides. And the motivation for doing so is incontestable: who wants to be on the losing side? 

It’s understandable that politicians and economists obstruct this revolution. Their power derives from defence of the current paradigm. Therefore, the revolution can’t begin in boardrooms or parliaments – not even in climate conferences. It begins instead in hearts and minds. 

True, most of us wouldn’t be able to survive for even a month without civilisation. But, our dependency on civilisation doesn’t change the fact that the way we are living now has no future. As we put more effort into developing an economy that doesn’t undermine its own basis for existence, a potential truce beckons. Yet until the terms of that truce can be outlined and adopted, it is the planet that deserves our allegiance. 

As grow-and-deplete civilisation fails, the only realistic response is to withdraw support for it – to put down our smart phone and get out of our box. As we pay more attention to birds and insects, and less to screens and advertising messages, we gradually come to our senses.

Welcome to the winning team.

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