An Alternative Long Shot
Author’s note, February 2016:
I no longer believe with as much certainty as I did, that financial collapse will happen anytime soon. Quantitative easing and other market interventions have been very successful at delaying the systemic banking crisis for a long time now and there’s no saying how much longer that could go on. The dynamics of the system certainly continue to point to a systemic banking crisis happening at some point though.
I also wonder now, whether when financial collapse does finally happen (or is about to happen), whether governments might not just use it as an excuse to change the system to a non-monetary one that maintains current inequalities and power dynamics, most probably as part of a shift towards authoritarianism. The collusion of governments with the mass media, and the negative effects on the economy and everyone’s lives if the crisis was allowed to play out, would potentially make that quite a feasible possibility, although who knows what would actually happen.
I believe there isn’t the same incentive for elites to allow the crash to continue now as there was in the Great Depression and previous depressions, when they could make a lot of money by selling before the crash and buying things back near the low point of the depression. This time prices will not be going back up again, due to peak energy reducing our industrial capacity, and most probably runaway climate change wreaking havoc as well. The chance of revolution is also much higher now for various reasons – our standard of living would have much further to drop than in previous depressions, we have the internet now, and we have a large number of serious social and environmental problems.
Personally, I’ve shifted my hopes for dealing with climate change away from financial collapse forcing a change in our way of life. I’m interested much more now in helping build movements that can demonstrate viable and exciting alternatives and create cultural change, such that environmentally friendly lifestyles become the norm, and our activist movements increase dramatically in size and power, so that we are able to change the things that need changing at the state, national and global levels.
I think this article is still useful both because a global financial collapse could still occur at any time, and also because a shift in our cultural values could have a similar effect on the climate. Regardless, I hope you find it interesting.
This article is an attempt to chart what might happen in terms of climate change, both in terms of science, and particularly the potential politics, if we see a serious financial collapse followed by further contraction due to peaking energy and resources. Despite this being quite a likely scenario, there is barel
Peak oilers, often end up thinking that we don’t need to worry about climate change because peak energy will take care of it for us. I think this view is strongly mistaken. While it is true that peak energy leads to less emissions than would otherwise be possible, we still end up in the zone of highly likely runaway climate change,and there will still be much that needs doing on an activist front in order to minimise our risk. On the other hand, climate change activists are often blind to the possibility of financial collapse or even peak energy collapse. Accordingly, I think their strategies are based on business as usual continuing, which I don’t think is realistic.
Climate change activists tend to already know that their hopes to create a broad-based movement that will convince governments to act, and act enough, are likely to fail, but it’s a long shot worth fighting for if the current context is all you have to go on. What I’m offering below is simply an alternative long shot, one I think is more likely to succeed considering it is based more on the short term interests of the population rather than long term interests which are harder to get people active on.
Below is a brief analysis of what financial collapse means for the climate, followed by an analysis of potential political scenarios, and particular detail on what I see as the most likely strategies to create a safe climate. These include a decentralised movement to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations, emphasising a shift to permaculture and appropriate technology, the continuation of the anti-emissions movement, a mass movement mobilising to take what’s left of our industrial capacity out of the hands of elites, and put it into good use drawing down Carbon from the atmosphere, remediating the planet and providing for our needs. This scenario could definitely be seen as an unlikely long shot, however considering the situation we find ourselves in, a long shot is much better than no shot.
Emissions in a financial collapse
The coming economic collapse, will be global, and will result in the total breakdown of our banking system. A similar thing happened during the Great Depression in the USA, where emissions dropped by 36% between 1929 and 1932. The current financial bubble is, however, much larger proportionally than the one preceding the 1929 crash. Additionally, the greater complexity and brittleness in our economic system – for example, a greater reliance on global trade, a far greater interconnectedness in the banking system, and just in time manufacturing and distributions systems – also mean that it is likely that the breakdown in the system will be a lot more severe than that of the Great Depression.
Unfortunately, as far as I can see, there aren’t any analyses online of greenhouse emissions in a financial collapse scenario. I do know that Nicole Foss, the leading thinker behind the financial collapse scenario, believes emissions would drop a very long way though. So, while it’s just a guesstimate, I’m going to suggest a drop in emissions of 60% over the first three years.
Financial collapse and the climate science
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report includes a section titled ‘What Would Happen to Future Climate if We Stopped Emissions Today?’ which is quite useful for our purposes. It’s not quite the same as a financial collapse scenario, but an approximation based on it is probably better science than what I could manage on my own.
In the graph above, the Zero Emissions scenario shows a sharp increase in temperature by about 0.4° C immediately after emissions are cut. This is due to the effect of Global Dimming largely disappearing, minus the effect of the short term gases being cut. In the financial collapse scenario, the rise would be approximately a quarter of a degree, and wouldn’t be as steep since the cut would be spread out over three years. There is definitely a risk here that this rise in temperature could trigger one or more of the climate tipping points and take us to runaway climate change. I think, for this reason, it makes sense to focus as much activity now on carbon draw down (more on this below) as well as reducing emissions, as is humanly possible. Without a global agreement we probably can’t do much, but there is a role for individuals, activist groups, businesses and farmers to do what we can.
The long term decline following the sharp rise is due to ocean and land uptake of CO2 and the removal from the atmosphere of other greenhouse gases. The graph shows the temperature in 2150 being 0.1° lower than it was in 2010.
This is interesting, since most analyses suggest that we are committed to 0.6° warming, as well as the 0.85° of warming we’ve seen so far. It turns out that the 0.6° we’re committed to is assuming that concentrations of gases remain constant, which in a collapse scenario they wouldn’t. I can’t quite figure out why, but in this graph, it looks like only 0.3° is ‘locked in’ with constant forcing, while on the same page, they reference the 0.6° figure. Regardless, my point is that without ongoing emissions, (if we don’t reach any climate tipping points, which some argue we already have), rather than going up by 0.6°, the temperature is likely to actually go down, very slowly and not by very much, but still, not up. The implication is that oceans and land systems removing carbon dioxide would have more of an effect than the lag in warming. This would be a key thing to understand – if this is the case – in order to sort out the potentials of our predicament.
Potential political scenarios
I can see four different kinds of political scenarios being possible in a post-financial collapse world. Different scenarios would likely play out in different places; however if we are to solve climate change, we would need to work towards a global transition to the scenario I’m going to call An Ecological Society. My scenarios are loosely based on David Holmgren’s four energy descent scenarios, although not quite the same.
The first, and perhaps the default scenario, is Brown Tech (one of Holmgren’s scenarios). If we don’t act, this is what we’ll get. In terms of energy use it’s just a continuation of what is already happening – more and more unconventional and dirty fuels, including deforestation for wood burning, and coal to liquids as well. In terms of politics, again it’s a continuation of what is generally happening: governments become heavier-handed, and shift towards authoritarianism/fascism in an attempt to keep the population under control. Some group – probably migrants – are scapegoated as the reason for the economic crisis, deflecting blame from the government and capitalism. In a Brown Tech scenario, those of us who care about climate change and other environmental and social justice issues are likely to be marginalised or worse, and our attempts at changing things will always be fought from the back foot. It’s not a scenario where we can have much hope of creating a safe climate.
My second scenario is Revolution. I think it’s entirely likely that the fall from affluence in the minority world will create revolutionary movements. People will be angry, and they are likely to take it out on their government, banks, and perhaps capitalism at large. This is exactly what the Brown Tech scenario is trying to prevent (and is why big corporations financed the Nazis).
Unfortunately, I don’t think this movement is likely to have climate change as one of its driving forces. We can try to argue for it, if this is the way things go, but as today, I don’t think we’re going to win over a popular movement on the basis of climate change since action on climate change is not in the short term interest of the population. I know that’s cynical, but I think it’s realistic. A democratic broad-based mass movement for radical change post-collapse will be focused on resecuring lost affluence, not on the environment. For example, SYRIZA, the second most popular party in Greece, a far-left coalition (I know they’re not revolutionary, but it’s the closest example available), lists as one point of their 40-point program: ‘Preference for renewable energy and defence of the environment.’ They don’t mention climate change; they would probably build renewable energy if they needed more energy, but they’re not talking about stopping fossil fuels at all.
If it is a truly democratic revolution, then at least we’ll have a better chance of arguing our case than we do now in a situation where fossil fuel companies and the economy at large essentially hold governments to ransom. One can never know ahead of time the outcome of a revolutionary movement though – it’s just as likely, if not more likely, that we would end up with less democracy than we have now.
The third scenario, another of Holmgren’s, Lifeboats, is the situation where society completely breaks down. Essentially Mad Max or The Road – a world of brutish survivalism, gangs and environmental collapse. Obviously we don’t want this scenario either. The only thing we can do in this scenario is hide out and attempt to preserve whatever aspects of technology and culture we can for a future renaissance after energy descent and the climate have hopefully stabilised. Although it’s possible, I don’t think Lifeboats is very likely to occur just through financial collapse. People are generally quite capable of grinning and bearing their lot before turning on each other. Either of the above scenarios will most likely (if we do nothing) degenerate into Lifeboats though, as climate change and/or peak energy end up meaning that centralised government is no longer able to provide for people, or even hold together.
In terms of the climate and the environment, the Lifeboats scenario is mixed, but overall not good. Industrial capacity, and with it most fossil fuel use, would largely grind to a halt. However, the end of centralised management of industry might also mean nuclear plants melt down and old mines slowly leach chemicals into our waterways. In the short term, we would see massive deforestation for burning of wood, however in the long term there would also be a large drop in the population, which would probably mean large scale reforestation and drawdown of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is there from land use change.
In any of the above three scenarios, since no serious action has been taken, we’ll most likely end up with runaway climate change.
The last scenario I’m going to call An Ecological Society. An Ecological Society is a mix of Holmgren’s two scenarios which are explicit responses to climate change and peak energy. These are Green Tech – which is a sensible egalitarian and environmentalist top-down medium and high tech response, and Earth Steward – which is a decentralised, permacultural, low-tech, bottom-up response. In my assessment, I don’t think Green Tech is particularly politically likely to come about post-financial collapse, and Earth Steward isn’t capable on its own of dealing with the mess we’ve made environmentally. The rest of this article will be concerned with how we get to An Ecological Society and a safe climate.
The initial decentralised response
Emissions will drop quite a long way initially in a financial collapse, simply because people won’t be able to afford anything that’s not a necessity. I think we can then get most of the emissions from necessities cut out as well through activists spreading permaculture and appropriate technology alternatives. The kind of things I’m talking about include growing your own food in the suburbs, growing medicines, using biochar stoves, evaporative coolers instead of fridges, compost-heated hot water, and even small scale wind, hydro and solar thermal.
Everyone with any kind of background in growing food or a capability for and interest in making appropriate technology would likely become a very useful resource to their local community. We might need to go door to door at first, but since we would be primarily helping people live more cheaply, rather than asking them to do anything political on behalf of the environment, I think we’d have much greater success in achieving change. And after a little while, I think the uptake of permaculture and appropriate technology would spread of its own accord.
In terms of climate change, a mainstreaming of permaculture and appropriate technology would mean that households in many parts of the world need barely any electricity or gas, that fossil fuel use from industrial agriculture and transport of food can be greatly reduced, and that carbon will be sequestered into soils where people are growing food.
Biochar, in particular, is a very important appropriate technology for us to be promoting, due to the way it sequesters carbon. People would be inclined to use it, not primarily to save the climate, but due to its utility for cooking or heating, and you also get the biochar end product which (after being fertilised) can increase food yields from your garden. According to the IPCC, meta‐analysis shows that crop productivity on average is increased by 15% and carbon is sequestered for between 100-1000 years. After being dried, any kind of woody matter can be used as biochar feedstock, from tree prunings to olive pips. It would make sense (on food security and climate grounds) to mobilise your neighbourhood to gradually chop down all your non-food producing trees and replant fruit and nut trees everywhere – these would draw down more carbon than the existing trees as they’d be in a growing rather than mature stage, and then you could chop and dry the wood to use as a fuel and biochar feedstock.
Beyond encouraging the personal/household uptake of permaculture and appropriate technologies with biochar in particular, another action we could take from the bottom-up would be the building of a solidarity economy. One of my previous articles went into great detail about how we could do this, so I’ll only briefly summarise it here. I’m essentially talking about creating a network of not-for-profit worker co-operatives which enact permaculture and appropriate technology as well as meeting other human needs on a larger scale. [This network now exists, check out www.livelyhood.community for more information]. Being a member of one of these co-operatives would mean part time work doing something useful, a small wage with which to pay your rent, and food and other necessities provided by the co-operatives, as well as a safety net in case of sickness or disability. Building a solidarity economy like this would not only contribute to reducing emissions and drawing down carbon, but it would also go a long way towards meeting people’s needs (thereby making the Brown Tech, Revolution and Lifeboats scenarios less likely) and creating a cultural change, away from competition and affluence, towards participatory democracy and simplicity (moving us towards the Ecological Society scenario).
The anti-emissions movement continues
Financial collapse won’t totally stop the fossil fuels industry. Demand will be greatly reduced though, which will lead to new developments being curtailed and many plants and mines closing down. This process will happen slowly over a period of a few years, and there will probably be an opportunity for activists to have some influence over which plants and mines are closed and which continue (obviously the worst sources of greenhouse gases are prioritised for decommissioning).
The fossil fuel industry will likely be much weaker than it is now (the more of a transition we make, as above, the more this will be the case as well) and it might be easier to win campaigns as a result. On the other hand, there will probably be fewer people willing to spend time on activism or donate to the cause, since people will be struggling just to survive a lot more than they are now. Anti-emissions activists would be well served by linking in with the transition movement and solidarity economy described above in order to gain the necessities of life and be able to continue in their important work.
A democratic, egalitarian and environmentalist movement builds
Meanwhile, the crisis itself and the decentralised solidarity economy might shift the way people think about what’s necessary and what’s doable. We could have a widespread cultural shift towards new values. Living simply means you only have to work part time, which means you have more time to have fun with each other and relax – much more rewarding than affluence could ever have been. Co-operating without a boss can teach important skills and value in participatory democracy. Creating an economic safety net at a much smaller scale than the welfare state (which will also make it more accountable) means you’ll know the people you’re supporting with your labour, and feel good about doing it. Being involved with growing your own food and minimising your resource use engenders environmentalism.
An additional bonus of the transition movement removing the reliance of the everyday person on fossil fuels is that climate change will become a class/social justice issue in the minority world as it already is in the majority world. As in the Revolution scenario, people will still be mighty angry about their loss of affluence, and it could be a lot easier to get action on climate change if it is seen to be not an issue of personal change (which induces feelings of shame and guilt, which often lead to denial), and instead caused by elites – a group who could be seen to be ‘fucking us over anyway.’ This shift in dynamic could substantially help to create that broad-based movement that climate activists are always dreaming of.
If both of these things (a cultural shift and climate becoming a class issue) happen, then society will change its tune on climate (and everything else) at a fundamental level. This could happen through a revolution (if the alliance of government and corporate elites attempt to stop us), or simply through the voting-in of a far left green party. If it is through revolution, it will be much more likely to succeed in being democratic and environmentalist than in the Revolution scenario, since it will be based on a broad-based cultural shift in the population.
And, of course, since different things will be happening in different places, if we succeed in getting to An Ecological Society anywhere, we’d put as much effort as we could towards helping it happen everywhere else.
And back to a safe climate
From there we can engineer a massive biological draw down movement, which is now a requirement to restore a safe climate alongside cutting emissions. I haven’t been able to find their assumptions, but I’m guessing that in the Zero Emissions scenario from the IPCC graph above, that they’re not including any extra attempts at drawdown (and even if they are these would probably be quite limited, considering the way the IPCC generally talks about land use and drawdown). I think there’s actually a lot more that we could do if we set our minds to it. Since pre-industrial times, there are now 240 extra gigatonnes of carbon in the atmosphere than were there before. Much of this will be removed from the atmosphere by the land and ocean systems on their own over a long period of time, but anything we can do to help will make a difference.
I’ve done a fair bit of research and done some calculations as to how much we could drawdown (through organic farming, particularly perennial farming, biocharring agricultural waste, restoring wetlands, slow forestry, using wood in construction, holistic management/carbon grazing and some reforestation), but they come out so positively that they seem unbelievable, so I’m not going to go into them here. What I will say though is that we could make a sizable difference and actively cool the atmosphere somewhat without reducing food production or unduly increasing costs or labour time (above what would be necessary with the end of fossil fuels anyway). It would just be a matter of changing the way we do things.
We’d also utilise what’s left of industrial capacity to make a transition to renewable energy. In contrast to current plans for large scale renewables, how far we would go with this would be limited by how much energy we actually need, since our values would support stopping there and we’d want to prioritise minimising the risk to the climate. This would mean we’d create enough renewable energy to be able to continue the work of remediating mines and fixing up other messes we’ve created, medicine, something like the internet, tool-making, and limited public transport.
As always, it’s a long shot on climate change. We’re most likely totally fucked. However, after an initial spike in the temperature, if we’re able to get to An Ecological Society, where we can cut all emissions and draw down as much Carbon Dioxide as is required, it seems likely that we could end up with a temperature level a bit lower than what we have now by 2050 or so, and have it continue to decline slowly into the far future.