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Is There Any Point in Fighting to Stave off Industrial Apocalypse?

The collapse of civilization will bring us a saner world, argues Paul Kingsnorth. No, writes George Monbiot -- we can't let billions perish.
 
 
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Editor's note: The following is an exchange between two environmentaists, Paul Kingsworth and George Monbiot over the question of how to approach the enormous threat posed by climate change and resource depletion. The collapse of civilization will bring us a saner world, argues Paul Kingsnorth. No, writes George Monbiot -- we can't let billions perish.

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Dear George,

On the desk in front of me is a set of graphs. The horizontal axis of each represents the years 1750 to 2000. The graphs show, variously, population levels, CO 2 concentration in the atmosphere, exploitation of fisheries, destruction of tropical forests, paper consumption, number of motor vehicles, water use, the rate of species extinction and the totality of the human economy's gross domestic product.

What grips me about these graphs (and graphs don't usually grip me) is that though they all show very different things, they have an almost identical shape. A line begins on the left of the page, rising gradually as it moves to the right. Then, in the last inch or so – around 1950 – it veers steeply upwards, like a pilot banking after a cliff has suddenly appeared from what he thought was an empty bank of cloud.

The root cause of all these trends is the same: a rapacious human economy bringing the world swiftly to the brink of chaos. We know this; some of us even attempt to stop it happening. Yet all of these trends continue to get rapidly worse, and there is no sign of that changing soon. What these graphs make clear better than anything else is the cold reality: there is a serious crash on the way.

Yet very few of us are prepared to look honestly at the message this reality is screaming at us: that the civilisation we are a part of is hitting the buffers at full speed, and it is too late to stop it. Instead, most of us – and I include in this generalisation much of the mainstream environmental movement – are still wedded to a vision of the future as an upgraded version of the present. We still believe in "progress", as lazily defined by western liberalism. We still believe that we will be able to continue living more or less the same comfortable lives (albeit with more windfarms and better lightbulbs) if we can only embrace "sustainable development" rapidly enough; and that we can then extend it to the extra 3 billion people who will shortly join us on this already gasping planet.

I think this is simply denial. The writing is on the wall for industrial society, and no amount of ethical shopping or determined protesting is going to change that now. Take a civilisation built on the myth of human exceptionalism and a deeply embedded cultural attitude to "nature"; add a blind belief in technological and material progress; then fuel the whole thing with a power source that is discovered to be disastrously destructive only after we have used it to inflate our numbers and appetites beyond the point of no return. What do you get? We are starting to find out.

We need to get real. Climate change is teetering on the point of no return while our leaders bang the drum for more growth. The economic system we rely upon cannot be tamed without collapsing, for it relies upon that growth to function. And who wants it tamed anyway? Most people in the rich world won't be giving up their cars or holidays without a fight.

Some people – perhaps you – believe that these things should not be said, even if true, because saying them will deprive people of "hope", and without hope there will be no chance of "saving the planet". But false hope is worse than no hope at all. As for saving the planet – what we are really trying to save, as we scrabble around planting turbines on mountains and shouting at ministers, is not the planet but our attachment to the western material culture, which we cannot imagine living without.

 
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