By Birju Pandya

The recent group discussion around the ‘Underestimating the Challenges of a Ghastly Future’ (UCGF) paper felt quite lively and meaningful to me, grateful for the opportunity to attend!  As I took in the discussion, I had a few reflections come up, which I offer below in the spirit of furthering the dialogue.

The first time I came across the idea of ecological overshoot was about a decade ago, in 2012.  I was working in the field of impact investing and came across a person who, in almost hushed tones, mentioned to me that the climate scientists we were hearing from (who were already concerning), were just the ones being platformed.  There were others, whose research and ideas weren’t being trumpeted, whose findings were more dire.  He also shared with me leaders of other ways of connecting to ecological wisdom – for instance, he asked me if I had heard of the Archdruid, John Michael Greer.  This sent me down a rabbit hole.

Since then, I’ve been diving deeper into an inquiry of breakdown.  It has included elements of my own, as I saw the fragility of my own psyche in the face of such large questions.  In recent years, I have found community around this inquiry, and have seen much larger numbers of people become ‘collapse aware’ at some level.  I’ve had the opportunity to interview some of the pioneers of an inquiry that’s born of allowing in some of these uncomfortable findings.

As part of this, I’ve been actively involved with the work of Jem Bendell, Scholar’s Warning, and Deep Adaptation Forum.  These are oases that seem to be grappling with similar questions – how to invite the scientific community to more directly speak their truth.  With Covid-19, the mainstream view was to present the science with a cautious tone meant to maximizing the saving of lives, not necessarily to keep up lifestyles.  Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case with ecocide, for a variety of reasons.

The early research on the topic of climate grief seems to be that talking about these issues, in broad and narrow forums, supports individual and community wellness, despite the intensity of the topic.  There are even those who say that it is the difficulty to name these possibilities, and experience the grief that accompanies them, that forms the basis for their manifestation.  Of course, human development exists on a spectrum, and not all may benefit from engagement, but I have seen how this same topic framed in multiple skillful ways can reach across values divides.

In recent times, I have been exploring how cosmology plays a role in how we metabolize breakdown.  In the eastern traditions, cyclicality is fundamental – just as there is a spring, or a Satya Yuga, or a True Dharma Age, there is a fall, or a Kali Yuga, or a Dharma Ending Age.  But of course the soil does not go anywhere.  Regardless of the times, there is something that transcends.  In Mahayana traditions, they speak of the importance of a Bodhisattva approach to life – a path of unconditional service with no aim to optimize outcome.  Perhaps that concept is prescient for these times.

What the UGCF paper brings up in me is an inquiry of ‘how to be,’ as much or more than ‘what to do.’  In our community, we know of many who are engaging with deep collective leverage points, from systems of economics to systems of governance – whether in those domains or the more mundane, the inquiry remains relevant to me.  As for me, I’m currently taking these questions into the embodiment domain – feeling tones, shadow work, grief work, and creating the space for others to head in a direction where the logical mind alone may not explore.  I appreciate the opportunity to reflect on what came up for me in this broader discussion, hope to listen and learn from others as well.

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.

Thoughts stimulated by the ‘Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future‘ paper

By Laurie Laybourn-Langton

I was born at the end of the eighties, this side of Hansen’s testimony to the US Congress and before the first Scientists’ Warning and Earth Summit in 1992. Much of the subsequent mainstream narrative on the environmental crisis seems to have been akin to warning fellow crewmates on a ship of a far-off storm. A small deviation in course would avoid disaster in the future. It is of course challenging to learn that, in the intervening thirty-odd years, the bearing was not changed, and the ship accelerated, as so many warned throughout. We are now well into the storm and heading deeper, as this paper so thoroughly reminds us. This next stage materially changes our strategies for shared survival. What to do?

First, it’s important to recognise that progress has been made – and is mixed. Mainstream political appreciation of the enormity of the climate challenge has improved markedly over the last few years. Some progress has been made in relation to appreciation of biodiversity loss. Yet the same cannot be said of the dire state of other parts of nature. Comprehension of the emergency as encompassing the critical destabilisation of the Earth System as a whole – a destabilisation that could soon overwhelm our agency – is functionally absent.

Crucially, progress is starting to be made in eroding a globally preeminent market fundamentalism. Behind the glare of the Green New Deal sits an array of ideas and practice on ownership, investing, wellbeing and so on, with increasingly influential communities organising around them, across north and south. The neoclassical, neoliberal paradigm of the last many decades is theory, practice and narrative, entrenched across the politics and economics determining societies’ structures and their resultant dynamics. Its unassailable position came at precisely the wrong time, eroding collective capability and shooting us further up the exponential curve of the Great Acceleration. Supplanting it has always been a necessary pre-condition for altering course. This process is accelerating, though too slowly, and too often in relative ignorance of the Earth System crisis and some of its wider socio-economic antecedents, particularly inequality and global economic power imbalances.

The 2020s could be dominated by two major stories. Firstly, neoliberalism is finally gearing up to act on climate breakdown. Following the election of Joe Biden and China’s commitment to net-zero, COP26 could be ground zero for a status quo triumphalism, founded on ubiquitous net-zero targets backed by increasingly positive rhetoric and action from major actors across the finance system. Such progress is, of course, welcome. But as we head to 2030, the reality of meeting steep decarbonisation targets could (predictably) crash up against the constrained policy set mandated by the political-economic mainstream. It is harder to discern a coherent status quo effort on biodiversity loss and biogeochemical stabilisation. The Dasgupta review of the economics of biodiversity – commissioned, significantly, by the highly orthodox UK Treasury – may portend a shift in the biases of mainstream economics, but late is the hour for reviews alone.

Secondly, the consequences of having entered the storm will mount as we head to 2030. The temperature rise will be approaching 1.5C, if it hasn’t already reached higher, and 2C won’t be far off. Damage and disruption will be growing and compounding. This is an emerging state of non-linear stress, transmitted through interconnected social and economic systems, and of saturating complexity and destabilisation. The wondrous accommodation afforded by the Holocene being over, we arrive on a new planet and in a new normal, an extreme normal. No normal. The Great Transition to save us from the downsides of the Great Acceleration will now have to be delivered during a Great Turbulence. Great.

By this point, the vertiginous stakes will be obvious to all who dare look. In turn, it could be increasingly difficult to avoid slipping down either side of a cultural saddleback. On one side, a largely ignorant, increasingly hysterical optimism, guaranteed by the rapid rollout of cleaner technologies, the promise of large-scale bio- and geo-engineering, dubious definitions of what constitutes net-zero, euphemistic conceptions of resilience and justice, and “one more heave” toward market perfection. On the other, a fatalism, often straying into misanthropy, that sees no possibility of any type of effective collective response, captivated by an eschatological cliff-edge “collapse”. These cultures are already here as we fight against 1.5C in the relative stability of a 1.2C world. Imagine them at 1.8C, 2C, 2.5C.

Both perspectives hold merit, and both lack credibility. They are a product of a world of binaries, a world that can be definitively “saved” or could definitively “end”. Yet so much has already been lost and the end of much of the current world is precisely what is needed. Biophysically, binaries are but one feature of a complex, dynamic problematique – and a frame we must therefore employ with the upmost caution.

Human activity is critically destabilising the Earth System. Swift, transformative action started around the time I was born might have limited the re-stabilisation effort to the span of a generation or so. This didn’t happen. So now, astonishingly swift and transformative action is needed just to avoid a maelstrom of feedbacks, which could rob us of our agency over those factors driving or slowing environmental breakdown. By definition, this action will have to be undertaken as the cacophony of destabilisation grows. Stuck in a storm, the primary objective is to steer out, lest the ship be overcome. Yet attention gets diverted by fear and sickness, a hole in the hull, crew abandoning their posts and grasping for the lifeboats – all of which could overwhelm the collective effort to steer out of the storm. Only if we successfully navigate this period can we afford ourselves the opportunity to get on with the main job: a vast, multi-generational effort to re-stabilise the Earth System and to live more harmoniously.

The central factor constraining the credibility of the optimists and the fatalists is an analysis of the medium term. While the former seems to under-appreciate the scale, pace and consequences of the emergency, the latter skip to the extreme end of possibility, lost in a fog of “methane burps” and inchoate “near term social collapse”. Ultimately, a world of rampant feedbacks holds little hope, of course. But, to draw on the common cliff-edge analogy, we would be wise to focus more on understanding and pre-empting the bumpy, alien typography onto which we have now strayed from the smooth road of the Holocene, and not just the sheer drop that awaits us in the distance. There are grades of ghastly future through which we will first pass.

In this emergent reality, the struggle to re-stabilise the Earth System will have to occupy the saddleback between these two cultures. Any period of rapid, paradigmatic political-economic change has been prosecuted by an ecosystem of influence, ranging through civil society, business, academia, formal politics and so on. As the stakes and destabilisation grow – and as more people join it and its power grows – this ecosystem will have to evolve to deal with the realities of being in the storm and not just warning about it. I offer three potential areas of evolution.

Firstly, the story will have to change. Telling the truth will always be a critical task. So many people still do not know the realities of climate breakdown, let alone of biodiversity loss nor of these crises as an overall destabilisation of interdependent natural and human systems and the complexities therein. The project of educating them, with care and compassion, will forever continue. But the loci of those stories carrying the truth will have to shift. The mess will be all too obvious, including to regressive political forces rehearsing the catechism that “liberal elites knew, they did nothing, now we must protect ourselves and take what’s left”.

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 liveable future. While it will be harder, if not impossible to justify the pre-2019 approach of marginalising environmental narratives that were open about the peril we face, greater destabilisation 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 candour 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.

Secondly, and following directly, it will become even more important to extend the inclusive, inter-sectional politics that is growing across the world. An unstinting focus on greater equality is critical. We may be occupying the same ship as it heads into the storm, but the conditions are and have long been very different across the crew, as are the levels of responsibility, for the mess and for the response, and of capability. Put bluntly, we have little chance of marshalling an effective effort to re-stabilise the Earth System without it being and feeling like a shared endeavour.

This necessarily means doubling down on efforts to shift beyond the neoliberal paradigm – and any other that is not compatible with effective re-stabilisation – developing a political economy capable of equitable transformation, or, in the words of the IPBES, a “fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values”. That means talking about power, who has it and how, and working to dismantle those structures and dynamics holding back a collective, inclusive effort. Just as the current impasse over global vaccine distribution is partly about the business model of pharmaceuticals and economic competition, a collective response under conditions of environmental breakdown is about the power structures of the global economy.

A high inequality, low cooperation world leaves us with little options. Instead, it gifts a wealth of potential for an increasingly barbaric eco-nativism, which waits in the wings for the siren call of division. In fighting it back, we need to tell positive, practical stories of shared hope and renewal, as, among other recent examples, Kim Stanley Robinson did us the great service of doing in his most recent book. Struggles for more economic democracy, a new fiscal-monetary policy settlement, and other debates in political economy are as inseparable from the struggle to re-stabilise the natural world as questions of equity and historical injustice. Yet they are still not at the forefront.

Thirdly, we need strategies and leadership that are robust to continuing the fight under conditions of growing destabilisation. This challenge is particularly acute for younger generations. The median age of European political leaders is 52. Emerging Millennial-age leaders, such as US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, will reach this age in around 2040. Fighting against 2/2.5C in a 1.5/2C world could be considerably different from fighting against 1.5C at 1.2C, as we do now. Leaders in the coming decades face an unprecedented challenge: to rapidly transform socioeconomic systems in a last-ditch attempt to re-stabilise the Earth System while contending with accelerating environmental breakdown and compounding societal destabilisation.

A failure of leadership under these conditions could fracture humanity’s capability to mitigate environmental breakdown at all. We may have one shot over the next few decades at realising a critical threshold of transition lest natural systems destabilise beyond control. This is the moment, and timing is crucial. So, getting power is only a step, a necessary but not sufficient condition. The competencies of leaders will be even more important, determining whether that power is used effectively under unprecedented conditions. Certain strategies and approaches employed in more stable times, even those from the late 2010s, might not be effective in the coming decades. Stability can breed complacency.

Action can be taken to better pre-empt and be equipped for this future, a new, explicit frontier of activity across those in climate, environmental and justice communities. This necessarily involves engaging with issues that are out of the comfort zone of these communities, or can sometimes be seen in an oppositional frame, such as defence and military strategy, the wider frontiers of foreign policy, and so on. These are the subjects that people will gravitate toward as destabilisation grows and it’s important that a wider perspective complements the existing frames and conclusions of these communities, which are well advanced in their study of the destabilisation to come.

This is about developing a far more sophisticated understanding of the medium term, drawing on insights from a diversity of these and other communities, including disaster response, human rights, historical social and economic justice, and indigenous knowledge. It means better using the unprecedented foresight that helped us identify these unprecedented threats, going beyond binary invocations of it being “too late” as the existential threat grows, or an understanding of the future employed singularly as a tactical cautionary tale to spur action in the present so as to avoid these prognostications becoming a reality.

“I’m sorry we’re leaving such a fucking mess,” said James Hansen, sometime around the 29th anniversary of his congressional testimony. For my generation and those below, this is our inheritance. It is maddening but it is. Alongside the grief, as the fires rage and the fear grows, we need stories of focus, struggle, and hope as we head into this next phase, battening down the hatches with a voracious resolve to fight for a future against the lashing fury of this storm

Laurie Laybourn-Langton is a researcher and author, including of Planet on Fire: A manifesto for the age of environmental breakdown, published by Verso Books on 20th April 2021. He tweets @Laurie_L_L.

 

The OMEGA Resilience Funders Network, the FAN Initiative, and MAHB invite you to a webinar on March 11th at 8:00am PST with Ashok Khosla. The conversation will be hosted by Michael Lerner to discuss ‘The Global Challenge: Education, empowerment, employment and economics: tools for building a promising future.

In our last #WeContainMultitudes​, Akwasi Aidoo, poet, human rights and peace advocate, and engaged philanthropy professional opened the conversation by talking about perceived antimonies – Summertime in Winter – and inviting participants into a dialogue and deliberation on the paradoxes and antagonisms evident in a world seemingly blown to pieces: pandemics, inequality, extremism, climate change, emigration crises and sadness.

This OMEGA webinar is a discussion on the recently published scientific article entitled Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future. Guests: Paul Ehrlich, Joan Diamond, Gerardo Ceballos, Nate Hagens, and Bill Rees Host: Michael Lerner