Slowly, the Global North is starting to realize it’s not invincible to Climate Breakdown.
Savanna? Dry shrubland? Semi-arid steppe? Desert? It’s hard to tell right now. (Image credits: European Union / Copernicus Sentinel-3)
Disclaimer: if you’re suffering from eco-anxiety, solastalgia or a similar
mental health issue perfectly reasonable reaction to the collapse of everything you hold dear, this article might be a trigger for you. Proceed at your own risk.
It feels strange, admittedly. We are witnessing nothing less than the breakdown of the global climate, in real-time, right on the screens of our phones, while we sip our morning coffee or commute to work – and we just keep on scrolling, keep on sipping, and keep on working. The content has changed over the last few years (it has gotten a lot gloomier lately), but the daily routine hasn’t. Not yet. Those irreconcilable opposites – a dying world on the one hand, our petty lives as wage slaves in the late-stage capitalist economy on the other – leave us to ponder existential questions. What can we do? How can we prepare? Is there a way to survive what’s coming?
Some people assure us there is a way out, a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card for climate change. Sometimes it’s planting trees, sometimes new technologies such as nuclear fusion or carbon capture & storage, and sometimes the mere belief that “necessity is the mother of invention.” The ‘Invisible Hand’ will solve all our problems! Usually, it’s the people whose well-paying jobs depend on the continued existence of the system (and the continuance of business as usual) who reassure us that everything is under control. Each passing day we believe them less.
I remember well how, about a year ago, the results of a new study on climate change were proclaimed proudly in Western media outlets and throughout social media. The study, published by a University in the United Kingdom, seemed to conclude that – surprise, surprise! – only “developed” Western countries are safe! The “best places to live to avoid climate change” (as one online outlet put it) are New Zealand, Iceland, the UK, Australia(?), and Ireland, in descending order.
“Avoid climate change.” Now that’s a heavy dose of hopium. A bit more and you might overdose.
The actual study makes for a rather sobering read, but that doesn’t matter to those who wish to dispel any concerns over the severity of our situation. “Future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than currently believed. [Emphasis added] The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms—including humanity—is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts,” write the authors. That doesn’t sound much like a recommendation for “places to avoid climate change”!
The study itself looked mainly at three aspects, population density (in relation to arable land), renewable energy sources, and remoteness. This is obviously a very limited perspective, and it omits a large number of other crucial factors, such as freshwater availability, abundance of wildlife, forested area, food security, pollution levels, subsistence and survival skills among the population, levels of self-sufficiency, dependence on modern technology, social stability, and others.
But how does this study hold up one year after it was published? From what we’ve seen so far this summer, of the countries in the top five especially the UK doesn’t seem like a particularly safe place in regard to climate change, and neither does the rest of Europe. Remember, as a result of the countless exponential graphs describing the Great Acceleration of the last century, greenhouse gas levels (and hence climatic instability) are now bound to increase exponentially as well. What we’ve seen this year is merely a foretaste of what’s yet to come.
Population density is a factor that will play a crucial role in how the collapse will unfold. The UK has an average of over 280 people per square kilometer, about four times that of Ireland, which is number two in terms of population density in the top-five-list compiled by the researchers. To make matters worse, the United Kingdom imports almost half the food it consumes, and in the event of a breakdown of supply chains famine would be a widespread occurrence, especially during the winter months. Same goes for Ireland, which imports a whopping 80 percent of its food, but even Australia and New Zealand (15 and 20 percent, respectively) would run into trouble soon enough if supply chains would collapse, especially considering that such collapse would also mean that chemical fertilizers run out in a matter of months.1 The so-called “Green” Revolution is often credited with doubling food yields, so a sudden unavailability of the fertilizers and pesticides that facilitated this increase would cut agricultural production by at least 50 percent, considering that soil health has decreased dramatically since the “Green” Revolution (as a direct result of it).
And while the study points out that the UK has a lot of arable land (over 70 percent), that also implies that there’s very little forests, so raw materials for construction and firewood will likely be in really short supply. Sure, much of the imported food amounts to luxuries (at least when put into historical context), and the UK also exports some food, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Kingdom is actually less than safe in terms of food security.
Supply chain collapse is a very real threat, one that could happen sooner rather than later, due to climate change, economic volatility and social upheaval. The authors of the study admit as much in relation to their discussion of “renewable” energy, and consequently spend a whole paragraph discussing this vulnerability.
“[H]ighly complex technological systems such as power grids are reliant on technical knowledge and physical components, the provision of which is at least in part via highly specialised manufacturing and globalised supply chains (which is a key vulnerability).”
What should be clear by now is this: first of all, if you actually read the study, you’ll see that it’s not like the authors make recommendations for you and your millionaire friends to move your primary residence to. They are pretty realistic concerning the long-term effects of climate change, as evident in the following passages:
“The first major change that humans achieved [sic] after a long period (approximately [300,000] years) of living in small, dispersed bands of hunter-gatherers was the transition to an agriculture-based civilisation […]. This was enabled to a large degree by the shift approximately [10,000] years ago to a warmer, more stable interglacial climate at global scale that has been characterised as the Holocene.” [Emphasis added]
This is what I’ve been saying for quite some time, and exactly what John Gowdy’s phenomenal article in the peer-reviewed journal ‘Futures’ showed beyond doubt. Civilization requires a stable climate, and a stable climate is a thing of the past now. Hence, civilization will soon be a thing of the past as well.
“The Earth System (characterised as ‘Gaia’) is a self-regulating mechanism, and observable shifts in the behaviour of Earth Systems may be manifestations of balancing feedbacks resulting from the strong and growing perturbation from human activities. These may [sic] have the potential to fundamentally undermine the agriculture-based civilisation that has flourished in benign Holocene conditions.”
Civilization (in its various iterations) has steadily increased its control of Nature over the period that spans those abnormally stable climatic conditions, and this control has increased exponentially over the past two centuries. But, as Joseph Tainter has pointed out in his magnum opus The Collapse of Complex Societies, the Law of Diminishing Returns kicks in soon enough. The Law of Diminishing Returns says that, as a society progresses, it will get ever less ‘bang for the buck’. Society will find itself using ever more resources, for instance, just to keep economic growth from stagnating – until it reaches the point at which, no matter how many resources you consume, growth begins to decline. Needless to say, we are very close to this point now. Civilized societies seldomly learn from their mistakes (a symptom of their inherent arrogance), and so nobody seriously suggests that a different approach might be advisable. The only way that this culture can go is forwards (a literal application of the Myth of Progress to cultural change), doing ever more of what it did (somewhat) successfully so far. If increased control over the Natural World has led to the “highest standard of living” (according to tautological standards that the dominant culture sets itself), then the only possibility left for this culture is to increase control even further: an attempt to control the global climate itself is the current proposal among the elites, although most of them don’t dare to publicly confirm this (yet).
“[T]he biggest challenge facing humanity […] may […] be long-term survival after the ‘bottleneck’ of collapse that becomes a high-probability event in such circumstances,” write the authors of the study referenced above. How anyone in their right mind can read “how to avoid climate change” between the lines here is a mystery to me, yet this is what happens all too often. People in the Global North seem overly confident that they are relatively safe. Consider the following map, compiled by UK-based energy comparison service Eco Experts [sic]:
Careful. The so-called “Eco Experts” just try to sell you solar panels. — (Image credits)
It is based on the same data as the previously examined study, the ND-GAIN Country Index compiled by the University of Notre Dame. All WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) countries somehow happen to have the least risk of being affected by climate breakdown, no matter where on the globe they are. But countries that are not considered “Western” (like Russia2 and China) are already at an increased risk. How convenient.
I often have the feeling that Western researchers, thinkers, politicians, academic institutions and even mainstream environmentalist organizations have a massive bias that’s obvious to see for anyone who’s either not a Westerner or doesn’t live in a “developed” country. Much of what they say sounds like empty promises to avoid mass panic and upheaval, or even wishful thinking that those leaders repeat to themselves over and over again, in the hope that they will believe it if they say it often enough. It’s usually something along the lines of “Don’t you worry, children, before we’re gonna get hit3 it’s gonna hit those poor brown folks in the Global South. We are actually pretty safe compared to them. The tropics will become unlivable, for sure, but along northern latitudes, climate change might actually boost agricultural output! Now sleep sound, my children, and fear you not, for we are safe!”
Not in those exact words, mind you, but with this implicit meaning.
Apparently, another thing many people seem to include in their considerations as to where it is “safe” is financial liquidity, and, evidently, they believe that climate breakdown can be alleviated by throwing bundles of money at it. Reality looks different. Yes, rich countries can hand out money after natural disasters that help rebuild infrastructure and homes, but that only works so many times. If the disasters start coming each year, even rich countries will sooner or later have to abandon their citizens to their fate. To a certain extent, this is what’s already happening in Florida for quite some time now, as insurance companies pull out of the state and leave homeowners with no options but to pay a lot more out of their own pocket or go uninsured.
More importantly (and I feel ridiculous even having to point this out): you can’t eat money. Once the system is down it will be nothing but useless colored strips of paper. Yes, in the short-term rich countries can buy up staple foods in bulk on the global market, but this is not a very sustainable strategy. How is this supposed to work if supply chains are down? What if people from “developing” countries don’t want to export their surplus to Western countries anymore? Will the UK (again) invade every nation that doesn’t give them what they want?
Many people in the Global South, especially those residing or born in rural areas, still know how to farm, how to forage for food, and how to hunt, trap and fish. Those are some of the basic skills being taught from generation to generation in those cultures. In the West we learn algebra and the periodic table, and read boring old books.
Considering that climate breakdown will inevitably lead to the eventual collapse of global civilization – what the authors of the study quoted repeatedly in the above have neatly termed a “de-complexification event” so that nobody can call them ‘alarmists’ – and, obviously, the collapse of the entire financial and economic system as well, it does not make much sense to look at current financial security as an indicator for “safe spaces.” The entire world is being affected, and the effects are of catastrophic dimensions. What really makes a society resilient is not its present level of monetary affluence, infrastructure and overall “development,” but precisely those cultural characteristics commonly found in the Global South: intact kinship networks, small-scale societies centered around the village, short supply chains, diverse subsistence strategies, knowledge of farming, herding, foraging, pottery, weaving, natural building, herbal medicine and other basic survival skills, functioning local communities, and a culture of cooperation and moderation (as opposed to the Western model of competition and excess).
So where does the Global North’s false sense of security come from? Why do so many people believe that the West will remain relatively unaffected? Maybe the reason is to be found in its inherent chauvinism: Western society remains, as a whole, relatively ignorant of any suggestions that it can learn anything from societies it considers “less complex,” “less developed,” or otherwise inferior. Surely it is the apex of social evolution, and if anyone will be affected, it won’t be the techno-industrial epicenters of “culture” and “innovation”. But the West is only great in the stories it tells about itself; the truth is far less flattering. It reached its place in the global pecking order through lying, deception, cheating, exploitation, theft, extortion, rape, torture, murder, tyranny, genocide, annihilation and ecological destruction on a truly epic scale. Its greatest achievement is a way of life so hopelessly dependent on fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources (and thus the destruction of the biosphere) that any attempt to make it sustainable is a Sisyphean challenge, forever doomed to fail just when it seems that victory is in sight. The West thinks itself superior, because it wins a game whose rules it wrote itself, while the truth is obvious to everyone else. They are just people, like everyone else – quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.
Nobody, not even scientists, are safe from the various psychological biases that taint our perspective on things, and the kind of thinking that sees the Global North as relatively safe is distorted by a whole panoply of different biases, like the expectation bias that leads researchers to publish data that correspond to their expectations for the outcome of a study (and that leads the public to believe those findings easier). Others are the compassion fade, neglect of probability, escalation of commitment, illusory truth effect, confirmation bias, subjective validation, and, most obviously, the optimism bias.
But how optimistic can we really be? Every few months we see a new article reaffirming the obvious trend: everything. is. happening. faster. than. expected.
Experts have become ‘not alright’, worried, concerned, shocked, stunned, terrified, desperate, aghast, and, once the media started running out of adjectives to describe the scientists’ dread, flabbergasted. We know things are serious when climate scientists are becoming flabbergasted by the climate crisis.
Europe currently looks like the Middle East on satellite images (or like Mexico in a Hollywood movie). It is experiencing what experts have termed the worst drought in 500 years (maybe you remember the “worst drought in a century” of 2003), and we can be pretty sure to see the worst drought in a millennium a few short years from now (the United States are actually experiencing such a millennium-drought right now). That’s what climate breakdown means. Soon it will not make much sense to compare droughts and other extreme weather events to the historical context because the CO2-levels in the atmosphere are the highest they’ve been in at least four million years. This means we’ve entered territory that no human being (meaning no member of the genus homo) has ever experienced.
As a result of this record-breaking drought, crop failure rates of up to 50 percent are expected in the UK4 this year. Until now, La Niña is generous enough to provide Australia with rain (too much water is always better than too little), but I’m afraid this blessing can easily turn into a curse (like it did in Pakistan), and it won’t last forever either way. What we’re seeing now is, in the words of one scientist, “whipsaw climate volatility.” First drought, then flood, then drought again.
The undisputed number one, New Zealand, will likely become a Marvel-Universe-like battleground for the private high-tech militias of various eccentric billionaire warlords fighting over hegemony and the access to an enslaved and miserable populace. Finally, real capitalism! True, New Zealand may try to limit immigration and property sales to foreigners, but tell that to a billionaire who’s ready to coup an entire country to get what he wants.
So what about the Global South, with so much of it located in the tropics? Admittedly, there is no shortage of articles claiming the tropics will become uninhabitable, unlivable and straight up deadly very soon. But they all focus on a wet bulb temperature (meaning the temperature measured in a thermometer wrapped in a wet sock spun around in the air) of 35◦C or higher, which is the point at which the human body can no longer cool itself through sweating and starts overheating. This combination of extreme heat and humidity leads to severe adverse health effects like organ failure, and ultimately causes death even in the healthiest individuals.
It is definitely a real threat. Singapore, for instance has warmed at a rate nearly double that of the global average, and temperatures are sometimes dangerously close to WBT35+ in India, Pakistan and a few other places. Yet declaring the entire tropical belt unlivable means falling victim to the same fallacy that assumes “the end of the world” is near. What’s near is not the end of “the world,” but the end of civilization. The world will continue to exist, and at least some human cultures are sure to survive, but the superimposed social construct we call global civilization will end. The fallacy here is to assume ‘the dominant culture’ means ‘everything’. This culture isn’t everything. We think it is, because it stretches from horizon to horizon, but it is not. It is a system in its death throes. Its decay has started decades ago, and now it’s too late to do anything about it. Death was inevitable, as it always is, but death is not ‘the end’ – it never is. So if you hear that ‘the tropics’ will become uninhabitable, what that really means is ‘the dense urban centers that the dominant culture has created.’ The Rainforest will not become uninhabitable, at least not for a very long time. And if you live among trees in the countryside, your place will not become deadly anytime soon. How do I know this? There is an interesting study from Brazil that contains crucial hints. A team of researchers collected the WBT throughout a public park in the city of Cuiabá, Brazil at different times of the day, in both dry and rainy season. During the most humid period, usually the afternoons in rainy season, the team measured WBT’s between 28.2◦C and 33.2◦C – while the temperature almost reached harmful levels in areas where the ground was covered in asphalt or concrete and trees were sparse, the WBT was considerably lower in areas with denser tree cover. And, remember, this is in the middle of a city, and cities are usually around 3◦C (but can be up to 10-15◦C) hotter than the surrounding countryside. Cities will become first uninhabitable, then unlivable, and finally deadly. As long as your house is surrounded by trees, you’ll be fine for a bit longer. Try to make that happen.
To be perfectly clear, I am under no illusion that the Global South will be better off. We’re all fucked, equally, just in different ways. In a globalized world, whatever happens to one region has ripple effects throughout the global economy – it’s just that those metaphorical ripples are slowly starting to look like tsunamis. But if I had to decide, I would rather experience climate breakdown in a society that has been through hardship before, and has thus realized that the traditional ways are much more resilient than the kind of high-impact lifestyle “development” has to offer. I would rather live in a society that remembers a time before the overabundance of fossil fuels that caused this mess, in a place where the favorite pastime of people is basically hunting, fishing, gathering and napping, and where every home has a small, diverse, multi-layered garden in the backyard. While nobody will remain unaffected, it will be those societies that have the best chances of survival – not soft-handed, rootless, immunocompromised, oversocialized, domesticated Western urbanites who depend on the global economy to cater to their every need and wish.
Beware if you belong to the latter category. I did, and the anxiety of it almost killed me – which is why I moved from Central Europe to the tropics of Southeast Asia. It seemed like a bold move at the time, but it might turn out to be the best decision I’ve ever made. At the very least, in the Global South a simple life is still possible, and even if all our efforts turn out to be futile, I’d rather spend my last years tending my little jungle garden than toiling away in some office or factory. You don’t have to move to the tropics, but I suggest that you get out of the city as soon as possible. Whatever will come after civilization, it will not originate in the cities. Governments are not going to save you, and neither is Greenpeace, so you have to try to save yourself. Try, by all means, get a few friends on board and try to create an alternative way of life – I’d be glad if you prove me wrong and help build a truly sustainable culture in the middle of Europe or North America, independent from (and immune to) the dominant culture, weathering climate breakdown and unprecedented social upheaval! Chances are slim, for you and for me, but I hope at least one of us will succeed.
In any case, I refuse to believe that the West will emerge unscathed from the seething cataclysm it has unleashed unto this world. As I say so often in my writings, in the end you will reap what you sow.
Teaser photo credit: By Claire Gregory – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30830880