Observations on apocalypse


Today I’m engaging in a long and occasionally heated debate with George Monbiot in the pages of the Guardian about the future of civilisation. And yes, it is a portentous as it sounds. It’s also, I think, an important first foray into territory which the Dark Mountain Project exists to occupy, and which is given little space or airtime at present.

Environmentalism has always been a broad church, but in recent years its concerns have narrowed spectacularly. Today’s environmentalists are preoccupied with climate change to the exclusion, sometimes, of almost any other issue. The environmental debate, which should take under its wing economics, politics, culture, spirituality, practical ways of living and ideas about our species’ true place in the world, has shrunk alarmingly. Today, everything comes down to carbon.

This is an environmentalism that everyone can do business with: oil companies, governments, the business sector, the media. Reducing carbon emissions is in everyone’s interests, and has become a kind of moral duty. Tagged onto this are increasingly dire warnings about the consequences of not reducing them quickly enough, for the climate change-uber-alles mentality comes with an apocalypse attached. We must ’stop climate change’ within 100 months (or is it 95 now? I can never keep track) or we are doomed.

George is a good friend of mine, and does excellent work, but he has come to symbolise this attitude. It’s here in his letters, and what it comes down to is a bipolar view of the world: we can either make our current civilisation ’sustainable’ or we can have a catastrophe of biblical proportions. This is very much the Western religious-cultural narrative dressed in pages torn out of the IPCC report. It is also incredibly depressing.

Why? Because, as I suggest in this debate, most people know, even if they don’t say, that we can’t stop climate change. We may still be able to mitigate it, and should try, but we won’t stop it. Neither will we stop the other trends which are about to burst civilisation’s bubble. And if we are told by people like George that the only alternative to this bubble is Lord of the Flies, we can indeed end up committing what he regards as the ultimate crime: ‘giving up the fight.’

I’m all for fighting: but what are we fighting for? George’s call for more ‘fighting’ to save civilisation from itself sounds to me more like a cry of despair than hope. Where, after all, would that leave us? Where would George’s vision of a world of Western-style living for 10 billion people get us? A turbine on every mountain, a barrage in every river, millions more cars, planes and motorways, GM trees and GM crops, mega-cities in every nation and the non-human world denuded and pushed to the margins or beyond. And where will the fuel come from to power this? Where will we find the resources to power this ever-growing economy? Because grow it must if this vision is to come true.

George claims that the only alternative to such a vision is billions of people dying. Let’s not be dishonest: it could be. But I think that attempting to pursue this vision is just as likely to lead to such an outcome, because the more we push on, the more likely a real collapse would be.

The alternative then? Well, if I believed in Big Ideas and manifestoes and grand plans, I would say a voluntary economic contraction in the rich world, a global cap on carbon emissions, work to reduce the human population (through choice, not coercion, of course) … I could go on all day. There is no absence of such manifestoes out there. The point is that they won’t work, because no-one is listening. The human world is chasing growth and will, I believe, keep chasing it until growth is no longer possible.

George believes such a message is depressing and pessimistic, and constitutes ‘giving up.’ To me, it constitutes liberation, because it gives us a chance to see beyond the world as we know it, and look towards what we call in our manifesto the ‘hope beyond hope.’ I think there are technologies, ways of organising and ways of living and thinking that could provide us with paths through the falling-away of what we know. I don’t imagine it will be easy for anyone; there are no easy ways out now. But I don’t see that trying to tame the monster is a better way of spending my time.