The Long View Vol.8

“In other words,” say 17 of the world’s leading ecologists in a stark new perspective on our place in life and time, “humanity is running an ecological Ponzi scheme in which society robs nature and future generations to pay for boosting incomes in the short term.”

Their starkly titled article, “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future,” reads less as an argument than as a rain of asteroids encountered in the course of flying blind on a lethal trajectory. The authors’ stated goal is not to dispirit readers. “Ours is not a call to surrender,” they write, “we aim to provide leaders with a realistic ‘cold shower’ of the state of the planet that is essential for planning to avoid a ghastly future.”

Avoiding a ‘Ghastly Future’: Hard Truths on the State of the Planet, By Carl Safina, Yale Environment 360.

Explaining how bad it is will increasingly have to come alongside even more powerful stories that explain why this is happening, how it came to this, and what we can all do together to fight for a livable future.

While it will be harder, if not impossible to justify the pre-2019 approach of marginalizing environmental narratives that were open about the peril we face, greater destabilization will throw up a range of other tensions and potential narrative risks. Fear and violence are alive to exploitation in scarier, less stable times; the victory of an openly barbaric, eco-nativist political narrative is an unthinkable but, as yet, unacceptably probable outcome. We must be wise to political as well as natural system feedbacks. This means fashioning a candor befitting the times and which sustains the unshakable belief – no matter what happens and against what may feel like unassailable odds – that our collective efforts can and will lead to change and to healing. Notes from a 1.2C world,

by Laurie Laybourn-Langton, OMEGA. 

Articles: The Big Picture

If you watched the excellent series on the Chernobyl disaster, you can see with perfect hindsight why many say that Chernobyl was the proximate cause for the collapse of the Soviet Union. You can see it in the way incentives drove bad decisions, which reinforced each other. This is what complexity science calls a positive feedback loop. The recent winter storms in Texas offer another teachable moment, illustrating how failures in one system cascade over to other systems. Freezing rain and snow break the electric and heating grid. Pipes break and the water system collapses. Transport stalls and stores are not restocked. An already overstrained health system drops more services. The science points to more of these breakdowns – and, let’s be clear, there is no credible dissent to the science. In this light, isn’t it time to prepare for it “just in case”? We’re Living in a Global Polycrisis: It’s Time to Build Resiliency, by David Bonbright, Giving Compass.  

Hundreds of scientists, writers, and academics from 30 countries sounded a warning to humanity in an open letter published in the Guardian in December: Policymakers and the rest of us must “engage openly with the risk of disruption and even collapse of our societies.” “Damage to the climate and environment” will be the overarching cause, and “researchers in many areas” have projected widespread social collapse as “a credible scenario this century.” Op-Ed: Collapseologists are warning humanity that business-as-usual will make the Earth uninhabitable, by Christopher Ketcham & Jeff Gibbs, Los Angeles Times

With a million species at risk of extinction, dozens of countries are pushing to protect at least 30 percent of the planet’s land and water by 2030. Their goal is to hammer out a global agreement at negotiations to be held in China later this year, designed to keep intact natural areas like old-growth forests and wetlands that nurture biodiversity, store carbon, and filter water. But many people who have been protecting nature successfully for generations won’t be deciding on the deal: Indigenous communities and others who have kept room for animals, plants, and their habitats, not by fencing off nature, but by making a small living from it. The key to their success, research shows, is not extracting too much. There’s a Global Plan to Conserve Nature. Indigenous People Could Lead the Way, by Somini Sengupta, Catrin Einhorn, and Manuela Andreoni, The New York Times.

Articles: Deep Dive

Under the Twentieth-Century Synthesis, areas of law that concern aspects of “the economy”—for example, contracts, corporations, and antitrust—were given over to a “law and economics” approach that emphasized wealth maximization. Meanwhile, other values—such as equality, dignity, and privacy—were supposed to be realized in constitutional law and areas of public administration. Shaped by these ideological currents, constitutional law turned away from concerns of economic power, structural inequality, and systemic problems of racial subordination. Other “public law” areas did the same. The result was that deep structures of power at the meeting place of state and economy were shielded from legal remedy and came to seem increasingly natural. How Law Made Neoliberalism, by Jedediah Britton-Purdy, Amy Kapczynski, & David Singh Grewal, Boston Review.

The point of the report is simply this: The world’s economic systems teeter atop “backward-looking risk assessment models that merely extrapolate historical trends.” But the future will not be like the past. Our models are degrading by the day, and we don’t understand — we don’t want to understand — how much in society could topple when they fail, and how much suffering that could bring. One place to start is by recognizing how fragile the basic infrastructure of civilization is even now, in this climate, in rich countries. Which brings me to Texas. Texas Is a Rich State in a Rich Country, and Look What Happened, by Ezra Klein, The New York Times.

It’s one of the mightiest rivers you will never see, carrying some 30 times more water than all the world’s freshwater rivers combined. In the North Atlantic, one arm of the Gulf Stream breaks toward Iceland, transporting vast amounts of warmth far northward, by one estimate supplying Scandinavia with heat equivalent to 78,000 times its current energy use. Without this current — a heat pump on a planetary scale — scientists believe that great swathes of the world might look quite different. Now, a spate of studies, including one published last week, suggests this northern portion of the Gulf Stream and the deep ocean currents it’s connected to may be slowing. Pushing the bounds of oceanography, scientists have slung necklace-like sensor arrays across the Atlantic to better understand the complex network of currents that the Gulf Stream belongs to, not only at the surface but hundreds of feet deep. In the Atlantic Ocean, Subtle Shifts Hint at Dramatic Dangers, by Moises Velasquez-Manoff & Jeremy White, The New York Times.

We are in a global baby bust of unprecedented proportions. It is far from over and its implications are gravely underestimated. The worldwide fertility rate has already dropped more than 50 percent in the past 50 years, from 5.1 births per woman in 1964 to 2.4 in 2018, according to the World Bank. In 2020, the 20 percent shortfall below replacement rate in US fertility, together with low net immigration, produced the lowest population growth on record of 0.35 percent, below even the flu pandemic of 1918. Many countries, including Italy, South Korea, and Japan, are predicted to see their populations drop by more than half by the end of this century. The severe cost of the world’s baby bust, by Jeremy Grantham, Financial Times.