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Sleepwalking to extinction

When, on May 10th 2013 scientists at Mauna Loa Observatory on the big island of Hawaii announced that global CO2 emissions had crossed a threshold at 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in millions of years, a sense of dread spread around the world and not only among climate scientists. CO2 emissions have been relentlessly climbing since Charles David Keeling first set up his tracking station near the summit of Mauna Loa Observatory in 1958 to monitor average daily global CO2 levels. At that time, CO2 concentrations registered 315ppm. CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations have been relentlessly climbing ever since and, as the records show, temperatures rises will follow. For all the climate summits, the promises of “voluntary restraint,” the carbon trading and carbon taxes, the growth of CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations has not just been relentless, it has been accelerating in what scientists have dubbed the “Keeling Curve.” In the early 1960s, CO2ppm concentrations in the atmosphere grew by 0.7ppm per year. In recent decades, especially as China has industrialized, the growth rate has tripled to 2.1ppm per year. In just the first 17 weeks of 2013, CO2 levels jumped by 2.74ppm compared to last year – “the biggest increase since benchmark monitoring stations high on the Hawaiian volcano of Mauna Loa began taking measurements in 1958.”1 Carbon concentrations have not been this high since the Pliocene period, between 3m and 5m years ago, when global average temperatures were 3 or 4˚C hotter than today, the Arctic was ice-free, sea levels were about 40m higher, jungles covered northern Canada, while Florida was under water, along with coastal locations we now call New York city, London, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Sydney and many others.

Crossing this threshold has fueled fears that we are fast approaching “tipping points” – melting of the subarctic tundra or thawing and releasing the vast quantities of methane in the Arctic sea bottom – that will accelerate global warming beyond any human capacity to stop it. Scripps Institute geochemist Ralph Keeling whose father Charles Keeling set up the first monitoring stations in 1958 said:

At this pace, we’ll hit 450 ppm within a few decades.”

“It feels like the inevitable march toward disaster,” said Maureen E. Raymo, a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a unit of Columbia University.”

Why are we marching to disaster, “sleepwalking to extinction” as the Guardian’s George Monbiot once put it? Why can’t we slam on the brakes before we ride off the cliff to collapse? I’m going to argue here that the problem is rooted in the requirements of capitalist reproduction, that large corporations are destroying life on earth, that they can’t help themselves, they can’t change or change very much, that so long as we live under this system we have little choice but to go along in this destruction, to keep pouring on the gas instead of slamming on the brakes, and that the only alternative – impossible as this may seem right now – is to overthrow this global economic system and all of the governments of the 1% that prop it up, and replace them with a global economic democracy, a radical bottom-up political democracy, an ecosocialist civilization. I argue that, although we are fast approaching the precipice of ecological collapse, the means to derail this trainwreck are in the making as, around the world we are witnessing a near simultaneous global mass democratic “awakening” as the Brazilians call it, almost a global uprising from Tahir Square to Zacotti Park, from Athens to Istanbul to Beijing and beyond such as the world has never seen.

From Green Capitalism: The God that Failed, by Richard Smith


  1. May 7, 2015 at 12:57 pm

    The problem is, as I’ve written elsewhere, that increasing profit from consumer capitalism involves one or both of two processes; bringing more people on line as consumers or getting existing consumers to buy more things more quickly – both involve ramping up the already substantial amounts of waste we produce (globally over a third of the food we produce is wasted, for instance, predominantly by the relatively small amount of rich consumers in zones of consumption – so much for Malthusian over-population being the problem!).

    We are bringing more people on line as consumers than ever before (India, China) and we have constructed sophisticated mechanisms of psychological pressure to persuade people to increase their turn-over of stuff (clothing fashions, social media, TV, smart phone and tablet selling – all dissatisfaction technologies) to the extent that the most successful sectors of consumer capitalism are what I call empires of waste – their profit doesn’t lie in building a better something or a more satisfying something, it lies in persuading people that everything they have is unsatisfying and that it needs to be thrown away and replaced..

    But never mind – 1,000 ppm of carbon where we start to choke is a long way off, so let’s carry on purchasing whilst the world burns!

  2. Garrett Connelly
    May 7, 2015 at 1:51 pm

    I have very much enjoyed living in a fantasy world since early January. It is a future world where the United States of Earth (Use) is about to go under like the old USSR and US did, for much the same reasons.

    It is way more fun to examine rational economics in a fantasy world than to look at fantasy economics in our rational world of infinite growth on a finite planet.

  3. José M. Sousa
    May 7, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    Just to give another term of comparison, in the last 7000 years before the Industrial Revolution, CO2 concentration on a millennium scale has not changed more than 20 ppm. It has changed around 120 ppm since the Industrial Revolution!

  4. Ack Nice
    May 7, 2015 at 1:54 pm

    Hang the carrot of unlimited personal fortunes in front of human beings and the least scrupulous will always be the ones going hardest after that carrot. Even knowing their pursuit of unlimited personal fortunes has destroyed their only habitable planet and their species’ very chance to have a future does not stop them – because – duh – they are the least scrupulous persons on the planet.

    Figure it out, Humanity?

    Probably not. Because Homer Simpson is smarter than most people. Homer is at least capable of having the big “D’oh!” moment, when he suddenly realizes how very wrong he has been getting his thinking.

    Maybe next time Mother Nature will rebuild the human brain from the ground up, instead of just slapping a layer of cortex on top of a reptile-remnant and saying “Whee, away we go!”

  5. Ack Nice
    May 7, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    The world has always scoffed at, mocked, ridiculed, ignored, and marginalized the great Egalitarian teachers the universe sent it – when they were the only ones who had it right all along. And now the human species is down to but 2 choices: do fairpay justice or go extinct.

    Economic Justice is the non-negotiable price of human survival.

  6. dmfant
    May 7, 2015 at 2:34 pm

    Reblogged this on synthetic zero.

  7. May 8, 2015 at 1:51 pm

    I think it would need more than a “socialist” bottom up approach to create real change as far as the environment is concerned. There are too many complicating features to it. Ideally, a mixture of a bottom up approach, and a top down approach would be a better idea if it can work properly. Hence, my evolving project of Transfinancial Economics which can be found at the P2P Foundation. It is to some extent, a top down approach, but it would also be able to help fund P2P human-scale project of high social, and environmental importance. The funding here would be sufficient injections into the economy of mainly new non-repayable money created electronically, and would not lead to serious inflation….

    • Garrett Connelly
      May 8, 2015 at 3:45 pm

      So you wish to inject funds into the economy to support further growth?

      • May 9, 2015 at 9:26 am

        There has to be some degree of growth if we are going to be serious about having a genuine green economy.

  8. May 8, 2015 at 6:00 pm

    Money doesn’t put carbon in the atmosphere. Also, carbon dioxide is heavier than air so low level burning creates fog rather than a greenhouse effect. What has caused that has been the destruction of the lush vegetation which absorbed solar energy, and jet aircraft burning fossil fuels at high altitudes.

    • May 9, 2015 at 9:37 am

      With respect, you completely miss the point. Money, and the profit motive is the means by which governments, and businesses order how the Economy works in our present capitalist system.

      • May 10, 2015 at 8:15 pm

        With respect, Robert, you completely miss MY point. I take yours for granted, and like Ack’s argument below, i.e. that inheritance is not earned. But whether the money supply grows or diminishes, there are, logically, given the facts about global warming, things we need to spend it on and things we should not. Re-afforestation was my example of the one and high-flying aircraft (thinking in particular of those transporting fruit, vegetables, executives and financiers that we can grow ourselves) my example of the second.

  9. May 8, 2015 at 9:05 pm

    Reblogged this on The Threat to human existence and commented:
    Although I have been black listed from commenting on this site, because I have raised the exact same issues covered in this post, it deserves redistribution because of its treatment of this problem.

  10. Ack Nice
    May 9, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    Well… I was/am sorta hoping Garrett was just playing ornery contrarian. Surely we all know it’s about what we grow and when and where? Like, surely we all know we must grow renewable energy, eh? And the human-care industry? And put an end to the usa military being the biggest user – waster – of petroleum? No less a man than R. Buckminster Fuller warned us in no uncertain terms that we humans can no longer afford to fund the stuff and projects of killingry; we have created and do create enough wealth to afford the stuff and projects of livingry – if we act in time.

    Wealthpower giants are never going to stop making financially impossible what is perfectly physically possible and must be done – that is why failure to re-adjustice the wealth is not an option any longer. This is about preventing the ability to stop vital progress.

    It’s ourselves we have to have faith in – I actually believe the average working family is all for leaving a livable planet to posterity – I actually believe most people are eager to make necessary adjustments currently being prevented by those possessing the degree of wealthpower that lets them be the deciders of Humanity’s story.

    Robert, I haven’t read your plan, but I’ve been suggesting this for decades so it’s possible we’re on a similar track:

    I propose:
    1. A 1% increase per month in the global money supply, going equally, directly, freely, electronically to every living human being, children included, one account per person. The inflation effect will reduce overpays, the money effect will reduce underpays, and it does so without the cost of assessing fortunes. This method is not perfectly efficient in reducing overpay, but it is very easy and quick to reduce underpay. A 1% per month inflation will make a 1% imbalance, which will adjust, as the underpaid spend more, generating more supply. It is gentle enough to avoid any economic social shocks, and works because the inflation effect reduces overfortunes MORE than the equal share increases them, while it reduces underfortunes LESS than the equal share increases them. The weakness in this is that the overpaid can inflation-proof their fortunes to some extent, especially if the idea is implemented nationally not globally. This approach is easy and quick to set up, it immediately relieves underpay stress and pressures and violence at the bottom. It is the lowest possible, most indirect interference with the overpaid. A regular inflation is very much less inconvenient than an irregular one. The fact is, governments and banks have already been increasing the money supply – only at present they give the money increase to the banks to suck more money off people through loans. Inflation devalues everyone’s money. It is a sneaky tax, forcing people to borrow, and in effect making them pay interest to buy back their own money.

    2. Making inheritance public instead of private. This will make the overpay shower gently down on humanity over three generations. It takes no self-earnings from living persons, and it reverses the perpetual concentration of wealth and political power in fewer and fewer hands. It counters effectively the natural tendency of money to concentrate unjustly, violently. The heirs have not done the work that created the wealth they get for free. Yes, making inheritance public instead of private means (almost) a 100% inheritance tax. We are preventing inequality of fortunes from growing to infinity by shovelling overfortunes into underfortunes. We know money automatically, unjustly concentrates endlessly, so any sensible species will introduce a counter to that. The simplest way is having every human being have one account (which governments will be happy to open since it means money coming into the country) into which the estates of deceased persons over US$1 million are distributed equally, electronically, directly, immediately, automatically. Private heirs can share the first US$1 million, (if we choose not to completely eradicate free gratis money). Parents would have trusteeship of children’s accounts till some suitable age, say 10 or 12. (This will give parents good reason to teach economic sense before the date children take over responsibility for their own funds!) This method is low-impact, yet totally effective. It doesn’t take away overfortunes from living persons, yet it will move humanity from extreme injustice and violence to near perfect pay justice and non-violence in just three generations – the time it takes for all the overfortunes to die.

    This plan does not propose interfering with any of the thefts in human economic systems at present, except by preventing these thefts from accumulating endlessly. Again, in brief, it does this by either 1. Distributing a 1% increase of money supply per month equally to every human, or 2. Distributing deceased estates over US$1 million equally among every human, or 3. both. (Or, by any other system/method that has greater advantages in low bureaucracy, low social upheaval factor, etc, than these.)

    These 2 steps correct for all injustices in our economic systems, but do so indirectly. Why the indirect route/method? Because, for one thing, attempting to prohibit each legal theft would be futile. It would be futile partly because the primary, omnipresent legal theft is found in the very nature of transaction itself and occurs with or WITHOUT human agency (the two things exchanged are not of equal workvalue, so every transaction contains a fair exchange plus a big or small drop of automatic, unavoidable transfer of wealth from earner to non-earner) …and partly because there exist far more legal thefts than I’ve listed, and partly because more/new legal thefts will endlessly be hatched to game the system until the reason for doing so and the capability to do so are eliminated. Also, legal theft is not the entire picture, and this indirect method is the only efficient corrective mechanism that counters for ALL economic systems’ errors/flaws/injustices that I am aware of after careful and comprehensive searching.

    I am very well aware that none of this is going to happen until enough people get economic clarity so they are certain it is only the work they do – only the sacrifice of their time to working – that backs money. Until then, they will be able to be scared into mis-thinking there just isn’t enough to go around, they’ll leave wealth concentrated mis-thinking we have to give away our rightful wages to giants in order for it to work for us – and the myopia of wealthpower giants will not only prevent a move to steady state they’ll blow or crash this planet to smithereenies.

    And btw, Robert – tho i know what you meant in your remark to Dave, every time somebody says ‘that’s not how the economy works’ – it makes me want to scream This economy works for NO ONE! I mean, what with self-annihilation of the humans looming large, isn’t that the logical conclusion of the article? That everything is broken??

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