Will Civilization Collapse Because It’s Running Out of Oil?

Will Civilization Collapse Because It’s Running Out of Oil?

Editor’s note: Oil has been called the “master resource” of industrial civilization, because it facilitates almost every other economic activity and subsidizes almost every other form of extraction. Chainsaws, for example, run on gasoline; tractors run on diesel fuel; and 10 calories of fossil fuel energy (mostly oil) is used to produce 1 calorie of industrial food. From transportation to shipping, industrial production, plastics, construction, medicine, and beyond, industrial civilization is a culture of oil.

Richard Heinberg presents an interesting conundrum for us. He is one of the world’s foremost experts on peak oil, and understands the energy dynamics (such as EROI, energy density, transmission issues, and intermittency) that make a wholesale replacement of fossil fuels by “renewables” impossible. And while he understands the depths of ecological crisis, he is not biocentric.

This leads to our differences from Heinberg. While he calls for mass adoption of “renewables” as part of the Post Carbon Institute, we advocate for dismantling the industrial economy — including the so-called “renewables” industry — by whatever means are necessary to halt the ecological crisis.

Nonetheless, Heinberg is an expert on peak oil, and we share this article to update our readers on the latest information on that topic.


by Richard Heinberg / CommonDreams

 

Will civilization collapse because it’s running out of oil? That question was debated hotly almost 20 years ago; today, not so much. Judging by Google searches, interest in “peak oil” surged around 2003 (the year my book The Party’s Over was published), peaked around 2005, and drifted until around 2010 before dropping off dramatically.

Keeping most of the remaining oil in the ground will be a task of urgency and complexity, one that cannot be accomplished under a business-as-usual growth economy.

Well, civilization hasn’t imploded for lack of fuel—not yet, at least. Instead, oil has gotten more expensive and economic growth has slowed. “Tight oil” produced in the US with fracking technology came to the rescue, sort of. For a little while. This oil was costlier to extract than conventional oil, and production from individual wells declined rapidly, thus entailing one hell of a lot of drilling. During the past decade, frackers went deeply into debt as they poked tens of thousands of holes into Texas, North Dakota, and a few other states, sending US oil production soaring. Central banks helped out by keeping interest rates ultra-low and by injecting trillions of dollars into the economy. National petroleum output went up farther and faster than had ever happened anywhere before in the history of the oil industry.

Most environmentalists therefore tossed peak oil into their mental bin of “things we don’t need to worry about” as they focused laser-like on climate change. Mainstream energy analysts then and now assume that technology will continue to overcome resource limits in the immediate future, which is all that really seems to matter. Much of what is left of the peak oil discussion focuses on “peak demand”—i.e., the question of when electric cars will become so plentiful that we’ll no longer need so much gasoline.

Nevertheless, those who’ve engaged with the oil depletion literature have tended to come away with a few useful insights:

  • Energy is the basis of all aspects of human society.
  • Fossil fuels enabled a dramatic expansion of energy usable by humanity, in turn enabling unprecedented growth in human population, economic activity, and material consumption.
  • It takes energy to get energy, and the ratio of energy returned versus energy spent (energy return on investment, or EROI) has historically been extremely high for fossil fuels, as compared to previous energy sources.
  • Similar EROI values will be necessary for energy alternatives if we wish to maintain our complex, industrial way of life.
  • Depletion is as important a factor as pollution in assessing the sustainability of society.

Now a new research paper has arrived on the scene, authored by Jean Laherrère, Charles Hall, and Roger Bentley—all veterans of the peak oil debate, and all experts with many papers and books to their credit. As its title suggests (“How Much Oil Remains for the World to Produce? Comparing Assessment Methods, and Separating Fact from Fiction“), the paper mainly addresses the question of future oil production. But to get there, it explains why this is a difficult question to answer, and what are the best ways of approaching it. There are plenty of technical issues to geek out on, if that’s your thing. For example, energy analytics firm Rystad recently downgraded world oil reserves by about 9 percent (from 1,903 to 1,725 billion barrels), but the authors of the new research paper suggest that reserves estimates should be cut by a further 300 billion barrels due to long-standing over-reporting by OPEC countries. That’s a matter for debate, and readers will have to make up their own minds whether the authors make a convincing case.

For readers who just want the bottom line, here goes. The most sensible figure for the aggregate amount of producible “conventional oil” originally in place (what we’ve already burned, plus what could be burned in the future) is about 2,500 billion barrels. We’ve already extracted about half that amount. When this total quantity is plotted as a logistical curve over time, the peak of production occurs essentially now, give or take a very few years. Indeed, conventional oil started a production plateau in 2005 and is now declining. Conventional oil is essentially oil that can be extracted using traditional drilling methods and that can flow at surface temperature and pressure conditions naturally. If oil is defined more broadly to include unconventional sources like tight oil, tar sands, and extra-heavy oil, then possible future production volumes increase, but the likely peak doesn’t move very far forward in time. Production of tight oil can still grow in the Permian play in Texas and New Mexico, but will likely be falling by the end of the decade. Extra-heavy oil from Venezuela and tar sands from Canada won’t make much difference because they require a lot of energy for processing (i.e., their EROI is low); indeed, it’s unclear whether much of Venezuela’s enormous claimed Orinoco reserves will ever be extracted.

Of course, logistical curves are just ways of using math to describe trends, and trends can change. Will the decline of global oil production be gradual and smooth, like the mathematically generated curves in these experts’ charts? That depends partly on whether countries dramatically reduce fossil fuel usage in order to stave off catastrophic climate change. If the world gets serious about limiting global warming, then the downside of the curve can be made steeper through policies like carbon taxes. Keeping most of the remaining oil in the ground will be a task of urgency and complexity, one that cannot be accomplished under a business-as-usual growth economy. We’ll need energy for the energy transition (to build solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, heat pumps, electric cars, mass transit, etc.), and most of that energy, at least in the early stages of the transition, will have to come from fossil fuels. If oil, the most important of those fuels, will be supply-constrained, that adds to the complexity of managing investment and policy so as to minimize economic pain while pursuing long-range climate goals.

As a side issue, the authors note (as have others) that IPCC estimates of future carbon emissions under its business-as-usual scenario are unrealistic. We just don’t have enough economically extractable fossil fuels to make that worst-case scenario come true. However, even assuming a significant downgrade of reserves (and thus of projected emissions), burning all of the oil we have would greatly exceed emissions targets for averting climate catastrophe.

One factor potentially limiting future oil production not discussed in the new paper has to do with debt. Many observers of the past 15 years of fracking frenzy have pointed out that the industry’s ability to increase levels of oil production has depended on low interest rates, which enabled companies to produce oil now and pay the bills later. Now central banks are raising interest rates in an effort to fight inflation, which is largely the result of higher oil and gas prices. But hiking interest rates will only discourage oil companies from drilling. This could potentially trigger a self-reinforcing feedback loop of crashing production, soaring energy prices, higher interest rates, and debt defaults, which would likely cease only with a major economic crash. So, instead of a gentle energy descent, we might get what Ugo Bardi calls a “Seneca Cliff.”

So far, we are merely seeing crude and natural gas shortages, high energy prices, broken supply chains, and political upheaval. Energy challenges are now top of mind for policymakers and the public in a way that we haven’t seen since oil prices hit a record $147 barrel in 2008, when peak oil received some semblance of attention. But now we run the risk of underlying, irreversible supply constraints being lost in the noise of other, more immediate contributors to the supply and price shocks the world is experiencing—namely lingering effects from the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russian oil and gas, and far stricter demands for returns from domestic investors. Keeping the situation from devolving further will take more than just another fracking revolution, which bought us an extra decade of business-as-usual. This time, we’re going to have to start coming to terms with nature’s limits. That means shared sacrifice, cooperation, and belt tightening. It also means reckoning with our definitions of prosperity and progress, and getting down to the work of reconfiguring an economy that has become accustomed to (and all too comfortable with) fossil-fueled growth.


Richard Heinberg is a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and the author of fourteen books, including his most recent: “Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival”(2021). Previous books include: “Our Renewable Future: Laying the Path for One Hundred Percent Clean Energy” (2016), “Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels” (2015), and “Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines (2010).

 

Photo by Chris LeBoutillier on Unsplash.

1.2 Billion Climate Refugees by 2050

1.2 Billion Climate Refugees by 2050

Editor’s note: As the climate crisis accelerates, extreme weather is causing crop failures and other disasters. Today’s article shares a grim projection: the world may see more than 1 billion climate refugees by 2050.

This problem is not new. Throughout the last 10,000 years, many civilizations have grown powerful, destroyed their land and water, and collapsed. Our situation today is only different because of scale. Modern civilization is global, and so the problems are worse.

Industrial civilization is a failed experiment. Wealthy consumer societies have been built by vast quantities of fossil energy and harvesting the natural world. Reversing this crisis will require a basic restructuring of our entire society. The economics of growth are obsolete. Destructive industries must be dismantled. Population must be stabilized and then reduced. Consumerism must be abandoned. Wild nature must be protected and allowed to expand and repair itself. And as centralized systems for food production and other necessities fail, new grassroots structures will need to be created.

“The media report on these crises as though they are all separate issues. They are not. They are inextricably entangled with each other and with the culture that causes them…

These problems are urgent, severe, and worsening… [they] are not hypothetical, projected, or “merely possible” like Y2K, asteroid impacts, nuclear war, or supervolcanoes. These crises are not “possible” or “impending”—they are well underway and will continue to worsen. The only uncertainty is how fast, and thus how long our window of action is.”

– From the book Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet

NB: This report is anthropocentric and focused purely on government aid programs which have limited ability to solve systemic issues.


From The Institute for Economics and Peace / September 9, 2020

Today marks the launch of the inaugural Ecological Threat Register (ETR), that measures the ecological threats countries are currently facing and provides projections to 2050. The report uniquely combines measures of resilience with the most comprehensive ecological data available, to shed light on the countries least likely to cope with extreme ecological shocks. The report is released by leading international think-tank the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP), which produces indexes such as the Global Peace Index and Global Terrorism Index.

Key Results

  •  19 countries with the highest number of ecological threats are among the world’s 40 least peaceful countries including Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Chad, India and Pakistan.
  •  Over one billion people live in 31 countries where the country’s resilience is unlikely to sufficiently withstand the impact of ecological events by 2050, contributing to mass population displacement.
  •  Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa are the regions facing the largest number of ecological threats.
  • 3.5 billion people could suffer from food insecurity by 2050; which is an increase of 1.5 billion people from today.
  • The lack of resilience in countries covered in the ETR will lead to worsening food insecurity and competition over resources, increasing civil unrest and mass displacement, exposing developed countries to increased influxes of refugees.The Ecological Threat Register analyses risk from population growth, water stress, food insecurity, droughts, floods, cyclones, rising temperatures and sea levels. Over the next 30 years, the report finds that 141 countries are exposed to at least one ecological threat by 2050. The 19 countries with the highest number of threats have a combined population of 2.1 billion people, which is around 25 per cent of the world’s total population.The ETR analyses the levels of societal resilience within countries to determine whether they have the necessary coping capacities to deal with future ecological shocks. The report finds that more than one billion people live in countries that are unlikely to have the ability to mitigate and adapt to new ecological threats, creating conditions for mass displacement by 2050. The country with the largest number of people at risk of mass displacements is Pakistan, followed by Ethiopia and Iran. Haiti faces the highest threat in Central America. In these countries, even small ecological threats and natural disasters could result in mass population displacement, affecting regional and global security.

Regions that have high resilience, such as Europe and North America, will not be immune from the wider impact of ecological threats, such as a significant number of refugees. The European refugee crisis in the wake of wars in Syria and Iraq in 2015 saw two million people flee to Europe and highlights the link between rapid population shifts with political turbulence and social unrest.

However, Europe, the US and other developed countries are facing fewer ecological threats and also have higher levels of resilience to deal with these risks. Developed countries which are facing no threats include Sweden, Norway, Ireland, and Iceland. In total there are 16 countries facing no threats.

Steve Killelea, Founder & Executive Chairman of the Institute for Economics and Peace, said:

“Ecological threats and climate change pose serious challenges to global peacefulness. Over the next 30 years lack of access to food and water will only increase without urgent global cooperation. In the absence of action civil unrest, riots and conflict will most likely increase. COVID-19 is already exposing gaps in the global food chain”.

Many of the countries most at risk from ecological threats are also predicted to experience significant population increases, such as Nigeria, Angola, Burkina Faso and Uganda. These countries already struggle to address ecological issues. They already suffer from resource scarcity, low levels of peacefulness and high poverty rates.

Steve Killelea, said:

“This will have huge social and political impacts, not just in the developing world, but also in the developed, as mass displacement will lead to larger refugee flows to the most developed countries. Ecological change is the next big global threat to our planet and people’s lives, and we must unlock the power of business and government action to build resilience for the places most at risk.“

Food Insecurity

The global demand for food is projected to increase by 50 per cent by 2050, meaning that without a substantial increase in supply, many more people will be at risk of hunger. Currently, more than two billion people globally face uncertain access to sufficient food. This number is expected to increase to 3.5 billion people by 2050 which is likely to affect global resilience.

The five most food insecure countries are Sierra Leone, Liberia, Niger, Malawi and Lesotho, where more than half of the population experience uncertainty in access to sufficient food to be healthy. COVID-19 has exacerbated levels of food insecurity and given rise to substantial price increases, highlighting potential volatility caused by future ecological change.

In high income countries, the prevalence of undernourishment is still high at 2.7 per cent, or one in 37 people do not have sufficient food to function normally. Undernourishment in developed countries is a byproduct of poverty; Colombia, Slovakia and Mexico have the highest undernourishment rates of OECD countries.

Water Stress

Over the past decade, the number of recorded water-related conflict and violent incidents increased by 270 per cent worldwide. Since 2000, most incidents have taken place in Yemen and Iraq, which highlights the interplay between extreme water stress, resilience and peacefulness, as they are among the least peaceful countries as measured by the Global Peace Index 2020.

Today, 2.6 billion people experience high or extreme water stress – by 2040, this will increase to 5.4 billion people. The majority of these countries are located in South Asia, Middle East, North Africa (MENA), South-Western Europe, and Asia Pacific. Some of the worst affected countries by

2040 will be Lebanon, Singapore, Israel and Iraq, while China and India are also likely to be impacted. Given the past increases in water-related conflict this is likely to drive further tension and reduce global resilience.

Natural Disasters

Changes in climate, especially the warming of global temperatures, increases the likelihood of weather-related natural disasters such as droughts, as well as increasing the intensity of storms and creating wetter monsoons. If natural disasters occur at the same rate seen in the last few decades, 1.2 billion people could be displaced globally by 2050. Asia Pacific has had the most deaths from natural disasters with over 581,000 recorded since 1990. Earthquakes have claimed the most lives in the region, with a death toll exceeding 319,000, followed by storms at 191,000.

Flooding has been the most common natural disaster since 1990, representing 42 per cent of recorded natural disasters. China’s largest event were the 2010 floods and landslides, which led to 15.2 million displaced people. Flooding is also the most common natural disaster in Europe, accounting for 35 per cent of recorded disasters in the region and is expected to rise.

19 countries included in the ETR are at risk of rising sea levels, where at least 10 per cent of each country’s population could be affected. This will have significant consequences for low-lying coastal areas in China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand over the next three decades – as well as cities with large populations like Alexandria in Egypt, the Hague in the Netherlands, and Osaka in Japan.


The Institute for Economics and Peace is an international and independent think tank dedicated to shifting the world’s focus to peace as a positive, achievable and tangible measure of human well-being and progress. It has offices in Sydney, Brussels, New York, The Hague, Mexico City and Harare.

Photo illustration of climate refugees by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

‘Not much hope’: Mediterranean coral reefs dying under relentless heat

‘Not much hope’: Mediterranean coral reefs dying under relentless heat

Editor’s note: The oceans have absorbed more than 90% of the excess heat trapped on planet earth due to global warming. Greenhouse gases are also absorbed into the ocean which has increased the acidity of ocean water significantly. Increased heat and acidity makes reproduction and survival more difficult for calcifying organisms such as corals and other marine life. It should be no surprise to anyone that we see coral reefs dying globally. So are plankton populations, fish populations, and countless other species. What is surprising is that efforts to halt and reverse greenhouse gas emissions have thus far been so tepid and ineffective. We must change that.


Article summary:

  • In 2003, a marine heat wave devastated coral reef communities in the Mediterranean Sea, including the reefs in the Scandola Marine Reserve, a protected region off the coast of Corsica.
  • More than 15 years later, the coral reef communities in Scandola still have not recovered.
  • Researchers determined that persistent marine heat waves, which are now happening every year in the Mediterranean, are preventing Scandola’s slow-growing coral reefs from recuperating.
  • Human-induced climate change is the culprit; persistent rising temperatures in the ocean have normalized marine heat waves, not only in the Mediterranean, but in the global oceans.

For years, Joaquim Garrabou donned scuba gear and dove into the waters of the Scandola Marine Reserve in Corsica to find a paradise. Twenty meters (66 feet) beneath the surface, there were reef walls draped with soft red coral (Corallium rubrum) and red gorgonian sea-whips (Paramuricea clavata), all swarming with fish and other sea creatures. But in 2003, a marine heat wave hit Scandola, leading to the death of many coral reefs. More than 15 years later, the reefs have still not recovered.

Now when Garrabou dives at Scandola, he’s greeted by the skeletons of once-thriving corals.

“It’s like seeing someone who is ill, who has a disease that you cannot find the solution for,” Garrabou told Mongabay in a video interview. “You hope that someday there will be a [solution] but you see that there’s not much hope.”

After the 2003 marine heat wave, Garrabou and colleagues began monitoring Scandola’s coral reefs to track their recovery. But after accumulating reef survey data and temperature data over many years, they eventually realized they were actually tracking the reefs’ collapse. The results of their long-term study were recently published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“We knew something bad was happening to the corals around the world, but we weren’t expecting a collapse in all of the populations that we studied,” study lead author Daniel Gómez-Gras, a marine ecologist at the Institut de Ciències del Mar in Barcelona, told Mongabay in a video interview. “The point of tracking these populations for such a long time was to show recovery in the long term because we expected that the populations — maybe not in five years, but in 15, 20 years — [would be] able to recover. However, we saw a collapse.”

reefs dying, illustrative picture of healthy reef
A researcher monitoring a red coral population in the Mediterranean. Image by Medrecover.

‘We don’t call it bleaching’

The data showed that marine heat waves were happening every year in different parts of the Mediterranean between 2003 and 2018. For 12 of those years, the water temperature at a depth of 20 m reached more than 23° Celsius (73.4° Fahrenheit), which is considered a sublethal threshold for corals. And for four of those years — 2009, 2016, 2017 and 2018 — temperatures at that depth breached the lethal threshold for corals at 25°C (77°F).

The researchers found that the ceaseless heat wasn’t allowing these slow-growing coral reefs to recover.

​​“Frankly, I never thought that I would be seeing it,” Garrabou said. “And it’s happening really fast.”

Soft coral species in the Mediterranean don’t “bleach” the way that tropical corals do, Gómez-Gras said. That’s because Mediterranean corals don’t have a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae, the algae that tropical corals expel when they experience heat stress.

“We don’t call it bleaching here in the Mediterranean for these coral species, since they don’t bleach,” he said. “They directly die with a loss of tissue and skeletons being exposed.”

While the results of the study are relevant to many coral communities across the Mediterranean, the researchers chose to focus their study on Scandola because the area had been established as a marine protected area (MPA) in 1975, and had been relatively free from other human pressures such as fishing and pollution. This helped them eliminate other possibilities for the coral reef population collapses and to pinpoint marine heat waves as the reason for their demise.

Researchers used to think that deeper reef communities might shelter coral species from heat stress. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that this isn’t the case, not only in the Mediterranean, but in other parts of the world, including coral reef sites in the Pacific.

“We are witnessing that if you go deeper, [there is still] impact,” Garrabou said.

Maps showing the location of Scandola within the Mediterranean, as well as the location, species and depth of the five monitored populations within Scandola MPA. The graph shows the number of marine heat waves that occurred between 1982 and 2018, and severity of each event. Image by Gómez-Gras et al (2022).

Raised temperatures

Human-induced climate change is responsible for the heating of the oceans — and it’s becoming hotter and hotter in the water. According to another study, the global oceans have broken a heat record for the sixth year in a row. As the oceans warm, heat penetrates downward — and this heating trend will continue even if emissions stop tomorrow, Kevin Trenberth, co-author of this separate study, told Mongabay in January.

A related study also found that marine heat waves have become the new normal for the global oceans as climate change rapidly transforms our world.

The Mediterranean may be feeling the impacts of climate change even more intensely than other parts of the world. A report published last year by WWF found that the Mediterranean was warming 20% faster than the rest of the world’s oceans.

Gómez-Gras said the accelerated warming in the Mediterranean has partly to do with its semi-enclosed shape. While this is unique to the region, he added that the Mediterranean shows what will happen in other parts of the ocean due to climate change.

“Marine heat waves are becoming the new normal in the Mediterranean Sea,” Gómez-Gras said. “So you can guess that in the future, it can become the new normal [elsewhere] in the world.”

Georgios Tsounis, a marine biologist at California State University, whose work was based in the Mediterranean for 11 years, but who was not involved in this research, praised the new study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B for its “valuable approach.”

“We need more long-term demographic studies such as this one to better understand where our environment is heading in the future,” Tsounis told Mongabay in an email.

While the study is focused on the soft coral communities of the Mediterranean, Tsounis said the research can help us understand how other coral communities “may or may not recover from repeated stress over a period of 15 years.”

“We are seeing coral mortality in other parts of the world as well,” he said. “The tropical coral reefs make sad headlines every year. But in the tropics we are mainly concerned with reef-building hard corals (as opposed to the soft corals in this Mediterranean study). The temperature range and entire cause-effect mechanism differ between these two examples. What is common to most of these scenarios is that the corals have adapted to a narrow set of environmental conditions, such as temperature, over a long period of time, and are sensitive to changing climate.”

A red coral population with dead colonies after a marine heat wave in 2016. Image by Olivier Bianchimani.

Seeking refuge

The researchers said they are searching the Mediterranean for “refugia,” places that offer coral reefs protection from thermal stress. One possible place could be the waters off the coast of the Calanques near Marseille, France, which seems to get enough cold water to protect its corals, Garrabou said. That said, the coral reef communities here experienced mass die-offs during marine heat waves in both 1999 and 2003. But since then, the region hasn’t had any major warming, and the corals have been able to slowly recover, he said.

While there are currently many places of refugia for coral communities across the world, a new study found that most of these places will disappear once the world reaches 1.5°C (2.7°F) of warming above pre-industrial levels, which is likely to happen within the next decade.

But it’s not just climate change placing pressure on the Mediterranean — fishing and pollution are additional stressors to the region. Because of this, Garrabou said it’s important to establish MPAs with strict protective measures to enhance the resilience of coral reef communities.

Currently, there are more than 1,200 MPAs in the Mediterranean, but only about 0.02% of the area they cover is closed to fishing year-round.

While the future looks grim for coral reefs, Garrabou said he feels hopeful about the momentum that’s building for the establishment of MPAs, especially with global efforts to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030.

“When we provide the right conditions and the right tools, nature can be really generous and nature has demonstrated that it can bounce back,” he said.

But he said that MPAs need to be urgently established for the oceans to reap their benefits. “It has to happen,” he said, “and it has to happen fast.”

Citations:

Bongaerts, P., Ridgway, T., Sampayo, E. M., & Hoegh-Guldberg, O. (2010). Assessing the ‘deep reef refugia’ hypothesis: Focus on Caribbean reefs. Coral Reefs, 29(2), 309-327. doi:10.1007/s00338-009-0581-x

Cheng, L., Abraham, J., Trenberth, K. E., Fasullo, J., Boyer, T., Mann, M. E., … Reagan, J. (2022). Another record: Ocean warming continues through 2021 despite La Niña conditions. Advances in Atmospheric Sciences. doi:10.1007/s00376-022-1461-3

Dixon, A. M., Forster, P. M., Heron, S. F., Stoner, A. M., & Beger, M. (2022). Future loss of local-scale thermal refugia in coral reef ecosystems. PLOS Climate, 1(2), e0000004. doi:10.1371/journal.pclm.0000004

Gómez-Gras, D., Linares, C., López-Sanz, A., Amate, R., Ledoux, J. B., Bensoussan, N., … Garrabou, J. (2021). Population collapse of habitat-forming species in the Mediterranean: A long-term study of gorgonian populations affected by recurrent marine heatwaves. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 288(1965). doi:10.1098/rspb.2021.2384

Jeffries, E., & Campogianni, S. (2021). The climate change effect in the Mediterranean. Six stories from an overheating sea. Retrieved from WWF website: https://www.wwf.de/fileadmin/fm-wwf/Publikationen-PDF/Meere/WWF-Report-The-Climate-Change-Effect-in-the-Mediterranean-2021.pdf

Tanaka, K. R., & Van Houtan, K. S. (2022). The recent normalization of historical marine heat extremes. PLOS CLIMATE. doi:10.1371/journal.pclm.0000007

Banner image: A red gorgonian coral (Paramuricea clavata) partially dead due to a marine heatwave. The lefthand side is still alive, while the righthand side is dead and the skeleton is exposed. Image by Eneko Aspillaga.


This article first appeared in Mongabay.

Paths Forward: In Defense of “Utopian” Creativity (Part 1 of 2)

Paths Forward: In Defense of “Utopian” Creativity (Part 1 of 2)

This story was first published in Learning Earthways.

By George R. Price

The oral traditions and origin stories of many Indigenous peoples, worldwide, include some stories of the endings of previous worlds. In such stories, the end of one world usually coincides with the beginning of a new world. Typically, the end of one world is the end of a grave error, the end of a world gone wrong. The life-endangering wrong way had to end for life to continue anew.[1] To have a fresh start, venturing into many unknowns, might be somewhat scary, but it is really a wonderful gift.

In the early winter months of 2014, in Missoula, Montana, I was part of a coalition of climate activists and Indigenous Earth and water protectors who were trying to stop, or at least discourage, the transport of enormous pieces of mining equipment to the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, where it would be used in the largest and dirtiest oil extraction project on our planet. The equipment was so large that the companies that owned those things could only move them through cities in the middle of the night, at the time of least traffic use (around 2:00 a.m.). They could not transport these monstrosities on the freeways because they were too tall—even lying down on trucks—to go under the overpasses. We called them the “megaloads.” On four cold winter nights, in January through March, we walked out onto the largest street in Missoula as soon as we saw a megaload and its entourage of pilot cars and police vehicles approaching. We sang and round-danced in the middle of the street, carrying signs, and sometimes our crowd was big enough to make a circle that fit from curb to curb across the whole street. The police allowed us to continue for a short while (the longest time was 22 minutes), then they cleared us off the road. A handful of our people intentionally got arrested, but most did not.

Sometime after the fourth megaload blockade, the oil and equipment transport companies decided to refabricate the equipment for transport on the freeways. We had caused them a minor inconvenience and a little negative publicity regarding the tar sands industry and its impacts on the Canadian boreal forests, rivers, the health of humans and other species, and global warming. So they began transporting their destructive devices in smaller pieces, to be reassembled upon arrival in Alberta. That change in operations cost three companies (Exxon Mobil, Imperial Oil, and transport company, Mammoet) about two billion dollars altogether, or about one quarter’s profits (at that time, just before oil prices dropped and tar sands extracting became a little less profitable). When taking government subsidies and tax breaks given to oil corporations into account, they probably hardly even felt a pinch from our annoying actions and were actually able to expand their tar sands operations and increase their profits for a few years after the blockades. Our blockade coalition held together for a few months longer, waiting for the next megaload to come through Missoula, which never came.

During those weeks and months after the last megaload blockade, I spent a good amount of time analyzing and reassessing the value and effectiveness of street blockades and similar actions on the big picture. The big question on my mind, and in the minds of some of my friends, was, “What did we accomplish and what good did we do for protecting the Earth through our actions in the street?” We also wondered who even noticed what we did (most citizens of Missoula are asleep at 2:00 a.m. and we didn’t get much media coverage) and, for those that noticed, did anybody who wasn’t already in agreement with our views on protecting the natural world change their minds and decide to take action on behalf of natural life? How about the megaload transport workers, security guards and police, whom we forced to stop their work and sit there watching us for 15 or 20 minutes, reading our signs, and listening to our round dance songs and our vocal pleas for the end of fossil fuel use? Did any of them change their thinking or quit their jobs? Well, we never heard back from any of them on that, as far as I know, seven years later.

One thing that seemed pretty certain to me then, and I’m even more sure about now, is that humans who live in monetary-based economies (capitalist or socialist) will very rarely choose to cease engaging in activities that assure them that they will be rewarded with that most essential material tool: money. That includes fossil fuel workers, the corporate bosses who own their labor, and just about everybody else who lives within the constraints of modern industrial societies. Most people would not knowingly engage in toxic, life-destroying activities if they were not getting paid for it or benefitting from it in some other way, or if they did not feel that they had no choice other than to make money doing such things. As long as people are rewarded for destroying life on Earth, they will continue to destroy life on Earth. Just about a week before the first megaload blockade, in January, I had written an essay about how money and beliefs about money are at the root of all of the activities, systems, and structural devices that are destroying natural life on Earth, titled, “The Problem with Money.” In the months after the last blockade, I revised that essay into a new one, titled, The End of Money: The Need for Alternative, Sustainable, Non-monetary Local Economies , and began to bring the ideas therein into many public forums, mostly attended by other self-professed “environmental activists.” That essay is a combination of critique of the status quo and suggestions for alternative, EarthLife-centered, local economies and societal structures. At that point in time, I had come to the conclusion that it was futile to continue attempting to change the prevailing large-scale societies (nation states and corporate-controlled empires), working through the usual channels, and settling for the small increments and ineffective gestures toward change allowed by the systemic authorities.[2] As I was learning more about the science regarding Earth’s bio-system tipping points and feedback cycles, I could see that we most likely do not have the time to move at such a snail’s pace, “barking up the wrong trees,” and make the types of major changes in human activities and social systems necessary for stopping the destruction of our interconnected Life on Earth and preventing more mass extinctions and ecosystem collapses. It had become clear to me then, and it is even clearer now, that the actual function of our political and economic systems is to perpetuate and protect the productive and consumptive mechanisms and so-called “way of life” that is destroying life on Earth, regardless of any official statements of purpose or intent to the contrary. The response that I received from most people to all of that was disappointing, but also enlightening. For a variety of understandable reasons, many people feel an immediate need to dismiss and block out not only the essay, but my entire perspective on necessary responses to our current crisis as “utopian dreaming,” or some similarly dismissive label.

When people read that essay or hear me say things like the economic and political structure of modern industrial societies is fundamentally wrong and that these societies must end most of their ways of being before they destroy most life on Earth, there are two responses that I hear most frequently, from the very few people who bother to talk with me about these ideas at all. Here are those responses:

“You are throwing out the baby with the bath water!”

“You are making the perfect the enemy of the good.”

My succinct reply to that first dismissive accusation can be found in the very short essay on this blog titled, “Who is the Baby?” That reply basically goes along the lines of asking people which baby they want to save, industrial civilization and their modern conveniences, or natural biological life on Earth, because we cannot save both. That is all I will say about that one now, as the point has also been made in my book review of Bright Green Lies, even better in the Bright Green Lies book itself, and by many others, including more and more climate-related scientists. (I will elaborate on this further, below). In this present essay, I would like to focus on that second dismissive accusation, which was actually the primary impetus for me to write this essay in the first place, along with my love for natural life.

There are many important questions to probe about the assumedly “perfect” and the allegedly “good.” Why do most people believe that utopian thinking is a quest for “perfection?” How did that claim originate? Whose interest does the claim that all utopian thinkers are unrealistic, irrational perfectionists serve? What is the difference between an imaginary, unattainable, “perfect” society and an ideal society? Are the societies that we (residents of all modern industrial nation states) live in now something that we can justifiably call “good?” When we call societies like these “good,” do we really mean that they are “lesser evils?” Very often, when people are told that their society is not good, or is unjust and harmful to life, they respond by comparing it to some other countries that they consider to be much worse. Is “good” and “lesser evil” truly the same thing? What should be the essential, required elements for a truly good or ideal society, especially in light of the current and near-future global crises? I would like to productively address all of the above questions in this essay and, by doing so, hopefully open up some possibilities for future interaction and deeper engagement with these core issues. Ultimately, I would like to persuade people that utopian thinking and actual creativity really is a useful, vital and even absolutely necessary exercise for us to engage in now, in order to be able to proactively and successfully deal with the challenges presented to us by the current and future, multi-pronged crises facing both Earth’s biosphere and the prevailing human societal frameworks.

Obviously, answering these questions will require some clarification of the definitions of several terms, especially “utopian.” So, in the interest of getting right to the point, let’s begin with that word. The word, “utopia,” was invented by Thomas More (Sir or Saint Thomas More, if you think that we should use one of those two titles that were bestowed upon him by the recognized authorities, when speaking of him), for his 1516 novel, “A little, true book, not less beneficial than enjoyable, about how things should be in a state and about the new island Utopia.” That was the original, long title (but in English, instead of the original Latin). There are six slightly different shorter titles used in some of the various English translations of the book, as follows:

  • On the Best State of a Republic and on the New Island of Utopia
  • Concerning the Highest State of the Republic and the New Island Utopia
  • On the Best State of a Commonwealth and on the New Island of Utopia
  • Concerning the Best Condition of the Commonwealth and the New Island of Utopia
  • On the Best Kind of a Republic and About the New Island of Utopia
  • About the Best State of a Commonwealth and the New Island of Utopia

Why was it important for me to show you More’s actual original title of the book and the six commonly-used titles? Because none of the titles describe the fictional island nation called Utopia as “perfect” and the book is not a discussion of perfect societies at all, but rather of best or most optimal societies. More uses the word “perfect” six times in the book, but never as a descriptive term for Utopia. [3] Rather than calling Utopia perfect or flawless, More preferred words like “best” or “good.” In his original title, More suggests that Utopia is an example of “how things should be in a state,” or, in other words, an ideal—but not perfect—state. The word “best,” in the 16th century as well as now, is a relative term, defined as “better than all other examples of a certain type or class of thing.” Under that general definition, the thing referred to as best is also understood to be the best so far, or best that we know of, until something better of its type is either found, accomplished, or created. In no way is the best considered to be permanently best, flawless, without room for improvement, or perfect.

The meaning of the word “best” in the various English titles of the book, as outlined above, becomes even clearer when we consider the structure and style of this frame narrative novel. The book is divided into two parts, the first part being a discussion between More and a couple of fictional characters about both the flaws and the best aspects of European societies, including England, and the second part is a descriptive narrative by one of More’s fictional friends about a fictional island somewhere off the coast of South America called “Utopia.” [4] Much of the social structure, politics, economics (i.e., no private property in Utopia), beliefs and customs of Utopia are compared to those in Europe and found by More’s friend to be ideal, or at least better than those in Europe.  But, not only does no character in the story assert that Utopia is perfect, More himself, as a character in his own novel, states in conclusion at the end of the book that, when listening to his friend describe Utopia, “many things occurred to me, both concerning the manners and laws of that people [the Utopians], that seemed very absurd,” and, after listing some of those disagreeable aspects of Utopian society, he says in his final sentence, “however, there are many things in the Commonwealth of Utopia that I rather wish, than hope, to see followed in our governments.”[5] The literary device that More uses here, in which he places himself in conversation with the fictional characters that he created (his “imaginary friends?”), allows him to express ideas that might have been dangerous for him to propose directly, in his own voice, while representing himself as somewhat oppositional to the radical social ideas advocated for by the character who describes Utopia, Raphael Hythlodaye. This technique also allowed More to be somewhat mysterious, or publicly ambivalent, regarding his actual views about ideal societies (“plausible deniability”?), as he was considering finding employment in the court of King Henry VIII at the time when he was writing “Utopia.”[6]

For the record, and to be absolutely clear, as I see it, and I think most of my readers would agree, Thomas More’s Utopia is no utopia or ideal society.

For the record, and to be absolutely clear, as I see it, and I think most of my readers would agree, Thomas More’s Utopia is no utopia or ideal society. Even though the Utopians have an economic system that is somewhat ideal and closely resembles the non-monetary, use value (rather than market or commodity value), need-based distribution, gift economy type of economic system that I and others have long advocated for,[7] much of the rest of Utopia’s social order is abominable. For example, it is a patriarchal society with all of the political leaders being males, and the Utopians allow for and excuse colonialism and slavery (not race-based, but for convicts and prisoners of war). While they seem to keep their population within the carrying capacity of their island most of the time, when their population gets a little too large for that, they form temporary colonies on the neighboring mainland, with or without the permission of the people already living there, on lands that they call “waste land,” because the land is uncultivated or “undeveloped” by humans (a familiar excuse used frequently by European colonialists of the western hemisphere, in More’s time and long after). That perspective and practice also illustrates the crucial missing element of the Utopian economic system, which (if it actually existed) would doom it to unsustainability and failure: it is anthropocentric, or centered on human needs and desires only, and not on the needs and sustainable, regenerative order of their local ecosystems, including all species of Life. That has been the most significant flaw of most utopian communal experiments in western, Euro-based societies for centuries (a point that I will elaborate upon further, below).

One reason for the common claim that the Utopia in More’s book, or any proposed utopian society, is intended to be perfect and therefore can never actually exist, can be found in the debate over More’s intended meaning of the name. Thomas More invented the name, Utopia, based on one of two possible Greek prefixes. (The suffix is “topos,” which means “place,” and there is no debate regarding that.) The debatable possible prefixes are “ou” (pronounced “oo,” as in “boo” or “goo”), which means “no,” or “none,” and “eu” (pronounced like “you”), which means “good.” Depending upon which Greek prefix one thinks More incorporated for the name of his fictional society, Utopia can either mean “No place,” if the prefix came from ou, or “good place,” if it came from eu. The U in the word Utopia has long been pronounced like the Greek eu, which suggests that More possibly used that prefix to form the name, but, since we have no audio recordings of how utopia was pronounced by More and other early 16th century English speakers, we don’t know with any certainty that they pronounced it in the same way that we do now. The text of Utopia itself, was originally written in Latin by More (who left it to later, posthumous publishers to produce English translations), not Greek, so there is no assurance there as to which Greek prefix he meant. “Utopia” is the Latin spelling of the name. For some reason, possibly related to his personal career ambitions and even his personal safety (in a society in which people often unexpectedly or capriciously “lost their heads”), More left the question about the meaning of “Utopia”—no place or a good place—open to debate. There is a contextual clue on page 171 of the second English translation, but it does not definitively resolve the question. [8]

So, now we can leave that question of the origin and meaning of the word behind us and get to the more important question of why most people believe that utopian thinking is a futile, foolish quest for “perfection.” The short, most direct, and most likely answer is because that is what they have always been told. But, if that is not how the inventor of the word defined it, who decided to give us this other story, and why? Follow the interest and the benefit (not just the money). The powerful and wealthy, the rulers of the vast majority of human societies, find it in their interest to discourage their subject people from imagining or creating alternative societies that are no longer subject to their domain and no longer contribute toward generating enormous, disproportionate amounts of material wealth for themselves. Ever since human beings began to depart from living in local, indigenous, eco-centered, life-regenerating communities and started creating unsustainable mega-societies like nation states and empires, about 7,000 years ago, the rulers have worked hard (or hired and forced others to work hard) at producing and perpetuating many lies for the purpose of deluding or frightening their subjects into remaining submissive to their systemic power, wealth and control. Over this long span of time, the rulers became very adept at persuading people what to think and what not to think, and with the electronic technologies invented over the last hundred or so years,[9] the subjected general public has been constantly bombarded with such messages. Commercial advertising, mandatory public schooling, peer pressure, parental love, fear of poverty, and the quest for equality, along with many other things, have all been used successfully by the ruling class as mechanisms for keeping people submissive and keeping wealth and power in the hands of a select social minority.

One of the saddest things that I have ever seen is children being taught to censor themselves from asking legitimate, important, and even vital questions, especially the big questions about the often illogical, counterintuitive and clearly unjust societal structure and traditions.

Not only are we told what to think, but also which topics to never think about seriously and which questions are too dangerous to ever ask. One of the saddest things that I have ever seen is children being taught to censor themselves from asking legitimate, important, and even vital questions, especially the big questions about the often illogical, counterintuitive and clearly unjust societal structure and traditions. The topics that the rulers would like to see eliminated from our thoughts and plans the most are those that threaten to end their power, wealth and social control. Thoughts, plans, and especially actions, for creating ideal, utopian societies must therefore be suppressed and eliminated, and the most effective mechanism used for that purpose, so far, has been to convince people that utopian societies can never exist because utopia means “perfect” and we all know that humans are not, have never been, and will never be, perfect. But, it is much harder for the rulers to convince us that we can’t become something much better than we are now, not just individually, but collectively, as a society, and therefore they cannot allow “utopian” to be defined as “better” or “best possible,” as the title and discourse in Thomas More’s book seems to suggest.

The more that subject people are rewarded, praised, honored, and awarded for their submission and service to the rulers and the system, the more difficult it becomes for them to question and resist the status quo. When the status quo systems are completely accepted as at least inevitable (“the only game in town”), if not unquestionable, and people are convinced that any apparent flaws in the system will eventually be corrected by the system, utopian creativity becomes unnecessary, dismissed, and considered a foolish waste of time and energy. Thoughts about reform—improving the system through the allegedly self-correcting mechanisms available within the system—are about as far as people are encouraged to reach in pursuit of social change. But the system, which is really a conjoined political, cultural and economic system, is primarily designed to self-preserve, not self-correct. What the system preserves most is the power of the wealthiest persons in the society, who control or strongly influence the politicians by use of lobbyists, bribery and threats to the politicians’ continued luxurious lifestyles or their actual safety. This happens at all levels of government, but is most structurally effective and most firmly established at the federal level. In the United States (and in other nations, as well to somewhat lesser degrees), the “revolving door” phenomenon, in which congresspersons who leave Congress are then hired by corporations to serve as lobbyists to their former colleagues in government, and sometimes later return to politics in higher public offices (such as presidential cabinet positions), is a prime example of this type of political corruption. A 2005 report by the non-profit consumer rights advocacy organization, Public Citizen, found that between 1998 and 2004, 43% of the congresspersons who left their government positions registered to work as lobbyists. Other reports show that another approximately 25% work as lobbyists without officially registering by becoming corporate “consultants” or lawyers.[10] Besides the lobbying aspect of the system—If you need more evidence of the depth of the systems’ corruption and why it will most likely continue to self-preserve for the perpetuation of the mechanisms causing Earth’s biosphere collapse instead of self-correcting to the substantial degree now necessary to prevent such collapse—do some research and analysis on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission” decision and on the “pay to play” system which all U.S. congressperson’s (of both political parties) must go through in order to get significant positions on law-writing committees or gain financial support from their party for their next re-election campaign. I could go on and on about the system’s corruption and its likely trajectory, but this is an essay about ideal paths forward and new possible systems, not so much about dystopia. I will only describe enough here about the current dystopian society and its contribution to the global crises to illuminate the need to abandon it and turn towards “utopian” creativity.

While much has been researched and written about the political and economic elements of the conjoined system, not as much has been dealt with regarding the cultural element, which is as much at the heart of the problem as the other two. One study that deals well with that cultural and ethical element, “The Ethics of Lobbying: Organized Interests, Political Power, and the Common Good”, by the Woodstock Theological Center (Georgetown University Press 2002), provides us with a very telling short quote from a corporate lobbyist they interviewed, who chose to speak anonymously: “I know what my client wants; no one knows what the common good is.” For utopian and alternative society thinkers and creators, it is this issue of the common good (which I expand further, below, to include the common well-being of all Life in Earth, not just humans), which the modern industrial political systems seem to have lost sight of, that matters most. A culture in which personal, individual self-interest, most often manifest in personal material accumulation and consumption, is the greatest concern for the vast majority of people, will consequently produce the types of political systems that we are subject to today. If one is familiar with and understands that type of culture, combined with the fact that getting elected to a political office now requires amounts of money that are inaccessible to the vast majority of aspirants to political office, then it should come as no surprise that the vast majority of politicians are more concerned with securing the financial assistance needed to keep their political power than they are with whatever may be the common good.[11]

While it is true that utopian thinking has taken on all sorts of forms over the centuries—from moderately restructured or reformed societies that closely resemble the societies that their creators criticize or reject, to societies that are only different due to the invention and application of phenomenal new technologies or wonders of human innovation, to those societies which are completely, radically different from the status quo systems and culture that their creators have come to reject and refuse to perpetuate—when I think of the type of utopian societies that are needed today, I think of that latter type, not reformism or techno-fixes. I know that pursuing such a path could meet with much opposition and can be dangerous if our opponents ever think that we could actually succeed at creating enough independent, ideal societies to cause the prevailing system to become abandoned and defunct. Suggestions for abolishing and replacing the system with a new way of living that ends the usual limits on the distribution of power and wealth are discouraged, punished (through various social mechanisms, legal and illegal), and sometimes labeled as “treasonous,” a capital offense, which can provide legal justification for a government to end a person’s life. This has long been the case with empires and nation states, whether capitalist or socialist, so why is it so relevant and urgent to risk going in such a direction now? This is a time like no other before it, in which there has never been a greater need for widespread utopian creative thinking and action. If we carefully examine the likelihood of extreme danger for all life on Earth that would result from continuing with the same social, cultural, technological, political and economic systems, according to all of the best available science to date, it becomes clear that we must create and learn to live within some very different types or ways of social life, in order for life on Earth to continue and to minimize the number of extinctions of species that are already set to soon occur, under the present system and its current trajectory. It is a matter of likely consequences and unacceptable risks, like leaving a bunch of matches and highly flammable materials in a room of unmonitored, naturally adventurous little children—but on a much larger, global scale.

Before most people can seriously consider what follows in the rest of this essay, they probably need some more persuasive reasons why such drastic changes to their customary and comfortable “way of life” are necessary. Such reasons can be found within the scientific case for the futility and/or impossibility of successfully resolving the current and near future biosphere crises through current social, political and economic structures or with the use of any actual or imagined technological “fixes.” That case has already been made, increasingly, by numerous experts, in a growing number of scientific reports and publications, so, rather than repeat all of that here, I will just insert some links to some of the best sources for that information for your reference, examination and further evaluation. It is difficult to summarize the essential root of our predicament in just one or two sentences, but as a sort of hint as to what a thorough investigation would find, I will offer you this “nutshell” illustration: capitalist industrial manufacturers seek the most powerful fuel and engines to run their large-scale, earth-moving, industrial equipment as quickly and efficiently as possible, in order to successfully compete, attain or maintain a competitive edge, and maximize their profits. So far, no electric battery powered machinery comes anywhere close to providing the power that they get from fossil fuels. That includes the heavy equipment used to mine and manufacture so-called “green” technologies. The links and a little more information are in the following endnote: [12]

Right now, at the end of 2021, we are still emitting C02 in the same upward trajectory pictured in this 2017 chart. This picture clearly illustrates the need for an abrupt end to modern society’s structural norms.[13]

Although having a solid grasp on the latest scientific findings on our predicament is essential to determining our most effective response, many social scientists and psychologists say that the real barrier preventing most people from considering the scientific facts regarding the dire circumstances facing biological life on Earth, and the need for radical societal change, is what people are willing to accept and resign themselves to, instead of making such changes. What are people willing to settle for as “good enough?” That question brings us back to the discussion of how people define “good.” If the type of creative thinking that is now required of us does not mean that we have to come up with something “perfect,” will those who now protest that we utopian creativity advocates are “making the perfect the enemy of the good” switch their accusation to “making the best (or the better) the enemy of the good?” If so, I would still have to ask them, “How do you define ‘good’? How would you define a good society?” Can any society that was built on a foundation of colonialism, slavery, the predatory exploitation of all of the material natural world (including other humans), patriarchy, anthropocentrism, racism, sexism, justified greed, and many other life-destructive perspectives and practices actually become a good society through attempts at reform, especially when the people in power oppose and block nearly all necessary substantial reforms? In the history of the United States, the foundational flaws listed above were not just unfortunate, unintended by-products of a basically just and well-intended government, but, in actuality, the necessary elements for achieving its intended purpose: dominion over all of the human and non-human inhabitants of their illicitly-acquired lands and over any other lands that they might eventually take in the future. Has that fundamental intended purpose of the U.S. (and other human empires) disappeared or ever been relinquished?

One reason why transformational reform towards real justice, equality, and regenerative environmental sustainability is continuously prevented from occurring is that the social mechanisms deemed necessary to perpetuate an empire or large nation-state, including formal education, indoctrination (both religious and secular), economic bondage, and social peer pressure (leveraging the human need to belong), are used by the ruling class in such societies to promote patriotism and widespread belief in the righteousness of the nation’s foundation. It is completely understandable that people want to feel good about their ancestors, their society, and their culture, have a sense of innocence about it all, and not be burdened with a sense of guilt over what the vast majority feel is normal and unquestionable. Such widespread beliefs and comfort zones make it even harder for people to admit that their societies are fundamentally flawed. Even when social beliefs about right and wrong change, over the long span of time, and large numbers of people begin to recognize and assess the errors of their nation’s founders, there remains a need for the ruling class and their loyal subjects to either justify or deny those foundational errors. One of many examples of this practice in the U.S. is the attempt to justify the slaveholding practiced by founders such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington by referring to them as “simply men of their time,” while denying (or completely unaware of the fact) that 98% of the “men of their time” in the new nation did not hold any of their fellow humans in slavery and the majority of states in the new nation outlawed slavery in their original state constitutions.[14] Another example, used to justify colonialism and the aggressive, often genocidal, separation of Indigenous peoples from their homelands, is the lie that the North American continent was mostly an uninhabited, unused by humans, “virgin wilderness wasteland, ripe for the taking,” at all of the various times and places in which European or Euro-descended people first arrived. For over a century, American academic anthropologists, in service to the ruling class, grossly underestimated the population numbers of Indigenous societies originally in the land now called the U.S., in order to perpetuate that lie.[15] Such institutional social mechanisms stifle and obstruct any imagined or actual significant correctional mechanisms that people believe are built into the system. People who have been effectively taught that their societal system is designed to repair its own flaws (no matter how foundational or essential those “flaws” and outright atrocities are to its existence) through its authorized “proper channels,” that such processes for correction must take lengthy amounts of time (perhaps even generations, for major flaws), and that creating new societies built on better foundations is unnecessary, impossible, and maybe even “treasonous,” tend to accept the common assumption that their society is either “good,” “better than other countries,” or, at least something we can call a “lesser evil.” We have also been effectively conditioned to accept lesser evils in nearly every political election campaign, especially at the national level, and every time that we must transport ourselves somewhere that is too far away to walk or bike to, even when we would prefer not to use fossil fuels or toxically-mined and produced lithium at all. Is a “lesser evil” the same thing as “good?”

Is a society that is so destructive to life that the best rating that it could give itself on environmental sustainability is “lesser evil” actually a dystopia?

Unfortunately, it seems that most subject peoples of modern industrial nations have come to define “good” and “lesser evil” as basically the same thing. Maybe the two-word phrase that most people would use to define the state of our current societies and our assumed-as-necessary daily compromises with evil is “good enough.” To that statement of submissive resignation I just have to ask, “good enough for what?” Good enough to keep a sufficient roof over your head and food on your table, at least for this month? Good enough to put enough gas in your tank so that you can continue to drive to that job of yours that just barely pays you a “living wage?” For those who have been a little more fortunate, a little more submissive, compromising, and “well-adjusted”—and, therefore, better-rewarded—does “good enough” mean “at least I get to have all of these great toys and continue to consume way beyond what I really need?” Good enough to keep you binging and streaming your life away? To those who do not define a “good enough” society based solely on its material benefits to themselves, and think more about the well-being of all members of the society (or, what used to be called the “common weal,” or, “common good”), does a society where 5% of its members own 67% of the wealth have a “good enough” economic system?[16] Is a society that is continuously engaged in illegal wars fought only for the purpose of generating financial profits for the owners of various industries “good enough?” Is a society of human beings whose minds are so twisted by the colonialist concept called “race” that they actually have no idea what a human being really is “good enough?” For those who care about preserving Earth’s natural systems that keep us alive, is a society in which the majority of its citizens are so out of touch with and alienated from the natural world that they do not realize that they need those interconnected natural systems (much more than they “need” money) in order to remain alive “good enough?” When confronted with the painful and repulsive fact that their society’s way of life is actually destroying life on Earth and bringing many species, including their own, rapidly towards extinction, some people reply, in attempted self-defense, that there are other nations which are doing more harm to the natural world than their own country is. Is a society that is so destructive to life that the best rating that it could give itself on environmental sustainability is “lesser evil” actually a dystopia? I think that any society that destroys their natural source of biological life simply by carrying out their normal processes of living, within the laws, customs, and ordered structures or systems of that society, and cannot bring themselves to stop doing so, is a dystopian society. Is living in a dystopian society “good enough?” But, again, let’s not get bogged down with endless examples of social dystopia. The only reason I am writing about dystopia here is to point out the need to move towards new (and some old) utopian, or actually ideal, ways of living. So, let’s proceed now in that direction.

What really is the “normal” way of human life in Earth, over the broad span of human history? The reason that I inserted the image above is to give everybody a sense of what is possible for the human species on this planet, and to de-normalize the ways we have been living for the last 5 to 7 thousand years, or 2.5% of our existence.[17] Before we began to go the wrong way, disrespecting and exceeding the carrying capacity of our ancient ancestral homelands (and/or other people’s homelands, taken through conquest or colonialism), all of our various Indigenous ancestors[18] practiced ways of life that were guided by local ecosystems and all of our interconnected and related fellow living beings. Those were harmonious, regenerative, sustainable, and (though not “perfect”) probably mostly joyful, peaceful, thankful and abundant ways of life.[19] We are still that same species and this is still the same planet, even when we take into account all that has changed, and all the vital knowledge that most of our people lost long ago. We will not know what is possible, regarding a return to at least some aspects of the old normal, until we make our best attempts to do so.

Banner image: The Kogi village and tribal community of Tairona, in northern Colombia.

Part II follows tomorrow.


George Price (descendant of the Assonet band of the Wampanoag tribal nation of Massachusetts) has been living with his family on their five-acre organic, polyculture farm on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana since the summer of 1985. He retired from a 33-year teaching career in 2018, which included teaching Native American Studies, American History, and African American Studies at the University of Montana for 20 years. Since he is no longer working “through the system,” he is devoting the remainder of his life to Earth/Water protecting, organic farming, food sovereignty, constructive communicating, and replacing industrial technophile capitalism with local, eco-harmonious, EarthLife-centric, cooperative, alternative communities.

[1] Beck, Peggy V., and Anna Lee Walters, The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life, Navajo Community College Press, Tsaile, Arizona, 1992. Clark, Ella E., Indian Legends From the Northern Rockies, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, 1966, 1977.

[2] The recent COP 26 debacle, which intentionally excluded participation by many Indigenous and other heavily-impacted peoples from the global south, and the infrastructure bill passed by the U.S. Congress that same week provided us with fresh examples of that futility, which many of us have long realized is the case.

[3] To be clear and fair, the word, “perfect,” in 16th century English, usually meant “complete” or “absolute,” although in certain contexts could be interpreted as “flawless” or something more like the way we define “perfect” today.

[4] Raphael Hythlodaye, Thomas More’s fictional friend who tells the story of his time in Utopia, is said to have gone there with Amerigo (a.k.a., “Alberico”) Vespucci. More’s Utopia: The English Translation thereof by Raphe Robynson, printed from the second edition, 1556, page viii.

[5] Utopia, pp. 164 and 165.

[6] As you may already know, More did eventually serve Henry VIII as a counselor, until Henry had him beheaded for refusing to publicly agree with him on the topic of divorce and remarriage.

[7] See, Anitra Nelson and Frans Timmerman, eds., Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies, London, Pluto Press, 2011.

[8] More’s Utopia: The English Translation thereof by Raphe Robynson, printed from the second edition, 1556, page 171. One of the minor characters in the book writes a poem speaking on behalf of the nation of Utopia personified, saying, “Wherfore not Utopie, but rather rightely my name is Eutopie, a place of felicitie.”

[9] Beginning with the radio.

[10] Thomas B. Edsall. “The Trouble With That Revolving Door”New York Times, December 18, 2011. That and 176 other reference citations, along with an extensive list of “further readings” on the topic, can be found in the excellent Wikipedia entry, “Lobbying in the United States,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lobbying_in_the_United_States

[11] Perhaps the only way that the politicians of today would prioritize the needs of the people whom they allegedly represent, over the will of the corporations who lobby them, would be if the people could form their own “Lobby for the Common Good” and that lobby was funded well enough to surpass the enormous dollar amounts in bribery of all of the corporate lobbyists combined. But, increased corruption of the electoral process (gerrymandering, artificially-constructed “gridlock” through the invincible two-party system, “divide and conquer,” etc.) is also making the people’s voice and will less relevant to the concerns of politicians.

[12] The first scholar to clearly demonstrate the inadequacies of so-called “100% green energy” technologies for replacing fossil fuel energy at present scale (and much less adequate at future expanded scales) was Ozzie Zehner, an engineering professor at UC Berkeley, in his excellent 2012 book, Green Illusions: the dirty secrets of clean energy and the future of environmentalism, (University of Nebraska Press). In their 2021 book, Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It, Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Max Wilbert echoed much of what Zehner had previously shown while updating the case and adding many more examples and reasons why the so-called green technologies are not nearly green enough to resolve our dire predicament, taking into account all of the fossil fuel energy, mining pollution, and CO2 emissions required to manufacture, transport, install and maintain those “green” technologies at the scale needed to continue with the industrial capitalist high-tech consumer societies. In their 2011 book, TechNo-fix : why technology won’t save us or the environment, Michael Huesemann and Joyce Huesemann describe in great detail the shortcomings and pitfalls of human technological “ingenuity,” including environmental pollution, the many harmful by-products and unintended consequences of many technologies, and the need to fix harm done by many techno fixes. The authors make a very strong argument against the notion that technology and “human innovation” can fix any problem or predicament. A very informative and well-researched study published by three science journalists earlier this year (2021) on exactly what it would take to run the current and growing industrial technological U.S. economy by switching from fossil fuel energy to solar and wind power apparently led to conclusions that were not nearly as rosy or optimistic as the authors had hoped for. The Race to Zero: can America reach net-zero emissions by 2050?, by Oliver Milman, Alvin Chang and Rashida Kamal, The Guardian, March 15, 2021, delivers some startling facts about how much environmentally degrading infrastructure that feat would require, including the need to cover 10% of the surface area of the continental U.S. with solar and wind farms, just to supply the electricity, not to mention all of the other energy productions now done using fossil fuels. We would also need “enough new transmission lines to wrap around Earth 19 times.” That article can be read at this link: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/mar/15/race-to-zero-america-emissions-climate-crisis?utm_term=75ea2afeff5d052feec5683cc23a9e8f&utm_campaign=GuardianTodayUS&utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&CMP=GTUS_email&fbclid=IwAR2Y1IXwzzEzviZY_u8hJ6gcW0ffBiIucDHfbRkjNzDAr5v0mH2vRNGl2oE

Another good, recent scientific article about the inadequacy of “green energy” technologies for resolving our biosphere crises is found here: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-delusion-of-infinite-economic-growth/  Earth system scientists are experts at the big picture of our planet’s condition and trajectory of changes over the broad span of time. One of the best (at least most clearly explained, although there was a little wifi connection fuzziness) presentations on the reality of Earth system collapse was made in an interview with Earth system scientist, Joe Brewer, back in December of 2020. Here is the link for that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j2L_JD2nxbE  OK, that’s enough for one footnote—more, later. Of course, all of these cited items contain references to further sources of good information.

[13] Global CO2 emissions went down briefly, from March to May of 2020, during the big international shutdown of commercial and industrial activity at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, but have gone back up again continuously since then. Stats on emissions for 2021 should be published in February or March of 2022.

[14] See, Nash, Gary B., The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America, New York, Penguin Press, 2005, and Lynd, Staughton, Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution: Ten Essays, Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill,1967.

[15] See, Thornton, Russell, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, 1987. Also, Mann, Charles C., 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.

[16] For this and many more statistics on economic inequality in the U.S. and the rest of the world, visit the Inequality.org website. https://inequality.org/facts/wealth-inequality/

[17] The time frame for the starting point of homo sapiens sapiens, or modern humans in their present form, ranges from 150,000 to 400,000 years ago, depending upon whom you ask. The longer ago that starting point was, the smaller the percentage of our existence that has been spent in unsustainable, life-destructive societies.

[18] All humans have ancestors who were, at some point in the past, indigenous to a particular place.

[19] In contrast to the negative, racist portrayals of all Indigenous peoples made by the ruling class colonialists.

Is colonial history repeating itself with Sabah forest carbon deal? (commentary)

Is colonial history repeating itself with Sabah forest carbon deal? (commentary)

This story first appeared in Mongabay.

Editor’s note: THE FIRST LARGE SCALE NATURE CONSERVATION AGREEMENT (NCA) IN THE WORLD. You should be afraid, very afraid. (NCA) is a different acronym for (NGO). It is the new colonialism, green , clean and renewable. The market will not solve climate change or loss of biodiversity. The market can only cause those problems. Don’t let them tell you otherwise. Free and Informed Prior Consent and may I add control by keeping corporations out. Abolish all corporations and their money.

By

  • To the surprise of Indigenous and local communities, a huge forest carbon conservation agreement was recently signed in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo.
  • Granting rights to foreign entities on more than two million hectares of the state’s tropical forests for the next 100-200 years, civil society groups have called for more transparency.
  • “Is history repeating itself? Are we not yet free or healed from our colonial and wartime histories?” wonders a Sabahan civil society leader who authored this opinion piece calling for more information, more time, and a say. 
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

“Bornean communities locked into 2-million-hectare carbon deal they don’t know about” – 9 Nov 2021, Mongabay

This was the headline Sabah woke up to on the morning of November 10th. Before the Mongabay story broke, I heard from Australian friends and allies as early as July that something was afoot. Forests, carbon, climate and communities are core to our collaborative work between civil society and government. I asked colleagues in government if they had any information but did not hear a clear response.

Over the weeks, I heard increasingly ominous whisperings. On 28 October, I received an email from international partners who had seen a Sabah deal – claimed to be signed in August – mentioned by external corporate entities in presentation materials. They were curious if I knew anything about it.

The materials were presented by Tierra Australia, Hoch Standard and Global Natural Capital (GNC) – seemingly Australian, Singaporean and Malaysian entities. Here are two slides from the 43 pages I received:

Screenshot of slide 11 of 14 slides presented by the three companies.

A month later, I’m still struggling to understand why and how this happened – and why we had to learn about it from outside Sabah.

Much has been revealed since then. We’ve now read numerous press articles, social media posts and reposts. We’ve seen online videos of the home offices of our new partners and footage of Hoch Standard’s Corporate Advisor Stan Golokin representing Sabah at COP26 in Glasgow, explaining carbon. We’ve read fact sheets and due diligence reports and realized that we don’t know who Sabah has signed this deal with. And some of us attended a briefing where Datuk Dr. Jeffrey Kitingan and team ‘mansplained‘ the deal to the public and civil society, after the deal was made.

But we have not heard the truth.

Read a November 24, 2021 update on this developing story here.

Screenshot of slide 21 of 21 slides presented by Tierra Australia & GNC, naming Hoch Standard as partner.

I identify as a community member of Sabah. I care about what happens to this tanahair (homeland) we belong to, over the next 100 years and then 100 years beyond that and onwards. I worry about whether our future communities can have food and water, and can be safe, self-determined, and sovereign. I aspire to be a good ancestor.

I, like many people in Sabah, yearn for true leadership that I can trust. I have zero tolerance for vague, unintelligible platitudes and half-truths disguised as leadership. It is an insult to our intelligence.

When will we finally stop with messiah/savior politics? With leaders who only have one tune in their repertoire – divide and rule with promises of wealth – and whose approach to fighting Federal Patriarchy, nationalism and ketuanan (patronage) involves using the exact same rhetoric? I urge us to get out of this delusional and dysfunctional trance before we lose everything and ourselves with it.

With the British North Borneo Chartered Company/Hoch Standard/Tierra Australia, is history repeating itself? Are we not yet free or healed from our colonial and wartime histories? Are we still riddled with illusions of inferiority and such self-doubt that we will step away from responsibility and sovereignty again? And hand our power, our rights, to those who have no idea who we are and what tanahair means?

primary forest in Danum Valley Conservation Area, Sabah, by John C. Cannon/Mongabay
Primary forest in Danum Valley Conservation Area, Sabah. Image by John C. Cannon for Mongabay.

Has patronage politics disempowered us and debilitated our agency? How can we stand back while discourse and democracy are replaced by silence and blind loyalty to the “lord” (Tuan, Datuk, Tan Sri, Bos, etc.)?

The more our doors are closed, the less transparent our processes become, and the wider the division between us. The more divided we are, the more future-altering decisions are made for the majority by a disconnected few. The more this is normalized, the smaller and less human we become, and more corruption breeds.

Two million hectares is more than a quarter of Sabah, two million hectares of forests is more than half our forests, 100 years is about four generations, 200 years is double that.

This is big. So big and so long that Sabahans deserve and need information and time – and a say.  We do not want to be presented a gift of a done deal with bags of money (to perpetuate patronage politics); prior and open fact-sharing, communication and consultation is what we want and in fact demand from our leaders.

Sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) are among the many charismatic wildlife species found in Sabah. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

Many of us in the social and environmental justice and conservation fields have spent decades working on a range of issues with growing intersectionality. We have nurtured real and trusting relationships both on the ground in Sabah and out in the world. We sought and continue to seek political and societal will and ambition for an equitable, climate-resilient future for Sabah.

We collectively, and in collaboration with Sabah’s civil service, have the confidence, capacities, expertise and partnerships necessary to build a home-grown, bottom-up process: a Sabah process. We do not require the unknown services of a Tierra Australia or the benevolence of a Hoch Standard to tell us who we are, what we have and how we need to manage it.

Is it possible to salvage this moment for Sabah?

Clean up, repent, learn. Pick ourselves up and build a self-governing, sovereign carbon future for Sabah.

I am speaking up in the absence of truth.


Cynthia Ong is founder and Chief Executive Facilitator of Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP) in Sabah.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Deep Green Resistance, the News Service or its staff.

Making the connections: resource extraction, prostitution, poverty, climate change, and human rights

Making the connections: resource extraction, prostitution, poverty, climate change, and human rights

Editor’s note: This article has been published in The International Journal of Human Rights. Unfortunaltly we don’t have the rights to publish the whole article which is behind a paywall, but we are publishing the extract and some quotes.

Featured image: The surface mine storage place, mining minerals and brown coal in different colours. View from above. Photo by Curioso Photography on Unsplash

ABSTRACT
This article describes the connections between resource extraction, prostitution, poverty, and climate change. Although resource extraction and prostitution have been viewed as separate phenomena, this article suggests that they are related harms that result in multiple violations of women’s human rights. The businesses of resource extraction and prostitution adversely impact women’s lives, especially those who are poor, ethnically or racially marginalised, and young. The article clarifies associations between prostitution and climate change on the one hand, and poverty, choicelessness, and the appearance of consent on the other. We discuss human rights conventions that are relevant to mitigation of the harms caused by extreme poverty, homelessness, resource extraction, climate change, and prostitution. These include anti-slavery conventions and women’s sex-based rights conventions.

Farley writes: “In this article we offer some conceptual and empirical connections between prostitution, resource extraction, poverty, and climate change.1 These associations are clarified by Seiya Morita’s visual diagram, in Figure 1.2 In the short term, resource extraction leads to a sudden increase in the sex trade, as shown by the arrow on the left side of the diagram. In the long term, resource extraction causes climate change as indicated by the right arrow. Climate change then leads to crises in peoples’ ability to survive extreme events such as drought, floods, or agricultural collapse. These climate change catastrophes result in poverty which then mediates and channels women into the sex trade. The arrow on the bottom of Figure 1 illustrates this process.

The initial phase of resource extraction launches and expands prostitution
“At first, colonists and their descendants subordinate indigenous people who live on lands rich in natural resources. Historically, extraction industries have exploited young, poor men who are paid well to perform jobs that no one else wants because the jobs are unplea- sant and dangerous. This initial phase of resource extraction temporarily results in a boom economy with cash-rich but lonely working-class men. In order to pacify the workers and enrich the pimps, women and girls who are under pimp control are delivered to workers in these boom/sacrifice zones such as the Bakken oil fields in USA and Canada, gold mines in South Africa, coltan mining regions in Colombia, and logging regions in Brazil.3 This movement of trafficked women increases prostitution both in the boom town and in neigh- bouring communities. Following is an example of this process.

“The Bakken oil fields of Montana/North Dakota/Saskatchewan/Manitoba are located in lands where the Dakota Access Pipeline causes physical, psychological, and cultural damage to the community, and ecocidal harm to the land and the water.4 In 2008, large numbers of pipeline workers moved into the Bakken region’s barracks-style housing which were named man camps. Sexual assaults, domestic violence, and sex trafficking tripled in communities adjacent to the oilfield sacrifice zones,5 with especially high rates of sexual violence toward Native women.6 Adverse consequences of living near extractive projects include increased rates of sexually transmitted infections and still- births; general deterioration in health; ecological degradation and climate change; threats to food security; and political corruption – all of which severely impact women.7 When resource extraction is terminated, for example when coltan mining was halted in Congo because of environmental protests, the newly expanding sex trade remains in operation, an enduring legacy of colonisation. Belgium’s domination of Congo gradually shifted from state to corporate colonisation.8 The Belgian colonists’ commodification of the nation diminished the people’s social and political power, leaving them poorer, with fewer resources, and often desperate for a means of survival even before the later phase of climate change occurred. This sequence happens wherever resources are commodified. Initially, a boom economy based on resource extraction creates short-term job opportunities and wealth previously unknown. Prostitution is established both to pacify the workers and to generate money for pimps and traffickers. When the boom economy goes bust, men’s continued demand for paid sexual access, combined with women’s need for survival – drive the institution of prostitution, which remains even after the extraction industry has ended.”

Melissa Farley (2021): Making the connections: resource extraction, prostitution, poverty, climate change, and human rights, The International Journal of Human Rights, DOI: 10.1080/13642987.2021.1997999

The whole article is accessible here: https://doi.org/10.1080/13642987.2021.1997999

Melissa Farley
Melissa Farley is a research and clinical psychologist who has authored many articles and 2 books on the topic of prostitution, pimping/trafficking, and pornography. She is the executive director of Prostitution Research & Education, a nonprofit research institute that conducts original research on the sex trade and provides a library of information for survivors, advocates, policymakers, and the public. Access to the free library is at www.prostitutionresearch.com.